Author Archives: Bryan Keithley

When to Ignore What School Taught Us

I love the truism, “Rules were made to be broken.” Why? Because (tautology alert) it’s so darn true. And when it comes to writing prose, breaking the rules means challenging some of those quaint, rigid little dictums our English teachers drilled into our heads and then enforced with their nasty red pens. I find that when my writing is not jumping off the proverbial page, it’s fun to think back to all those draconian rules about good writing—and then blow them up and create my own.

Join me in my trip back to school, won’t you?

Teacher (imagine an extra-nasally voice): “Always write in complete sentences.”

Subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb is boring, boring, boring. Break out of the complete sentence habit and try to “stutter step” your prose a bit. What, you don’t think incomplete sentences can be dramatic and compelling?

Simply not true. (See?)

Incomplete, fragmented sentences contribute to sentence variety by giving you shorter, more impactful spikes amid longer sentences. And often, these type of sentences help to create a mood or help define a character. If you’re writing in first person or third-person limited, for example, using short and fragmented sentences can aid in a portrayal of a distressed or chaotic state of mind.

Pretty cool, huh?

Teacher: “Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence which introduces and summarizes the paragraph that follows.”

 

Again, boring! Ditch the school marm routine and consider leaving revelatory statements at the end of your paragraphs. I call these suspend paragraphs. Start out mysterious, vague, enigmatic, abstract, and then clobber your reader at the end with the truth. And when you think about it, it’s perfectly natural to leave the best bits for the end. Screenwriters know this: they use “suspend sentences” to increase the punch of their dialogue by leaving the most important part of a line at the end. “The butler murdered Mr. Smith behind the greenhouse!” is usually weaker than “Mr. Smith was murdered behind the greenhouse by the butler!”

Teacher: “Your paper must focus on one main point, and everything should be in support of that point.”

In fiction prose, organizing chapters or sections around single “main points” can be stifling. It can lead to a tedious kind of ask-and-answer, “paint by numbers” approach. Whether it’s exposition, characterization, subplots, local color, humor, or thematic material, find a way to chop up your material and sprinkle it throughout your book. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your reader! He or she does not have to be led by the hand. Add some variety, keep ’em guessing, and keep it interesting.

Have any other writing tips or things you think you can ignore from high school English? Please, share!

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Collections: 5 Tips on Getting Your Money

It’s about the passion, about the freedom, and about the variety of working with many different clients. But working at home is also about the money! And because you might be a one-man or one-woman operation, each chunk of money owed to you can be very significant, especially when you’re first starting out and cash flow is problematic.

Here are five guidelines to follow when you put on your collection agent hat, particularly when you have slow-paying or no-paying clients that need a kick in the pants.

•Reduce the need for collections altogether! – By using an online service and escrowing funds prior to work starting, you’re assured that funds are available. Also consider asking for upfront payments for larger jobs. Splitting the payment up and getting money at the start can help stave off any cash flow crisis.

•Prep the client for invoicing – If you send a quick note to the client along the lines of, “I anticipate completing the job on Tuesday and will invoice then, let me know if that’s a problem,” you’re laying the groundwork for the expectation of payment.

•Invoice promptly and accurately – Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by delaying invoicing. Send invoice as soon as is reasonable and appropriate. Invoices should normally indicate “Due upon receipt” for completed work. And especially if you’re using an old invoice or template, there’s a chance to make a mistake in the billing. Don’t fall into this trap! An employer may rightly call you on the mistake and ask you to resubmit, delaying the payment. And less scrupulous employers may use your mistake as an excuse to sit on the invoice even longer.

•Establish an invoice spreadsheet – Smaller work from home operations unfortunately have to be their own accounting departments. And it’s easy to lose track of invoices, particularly if you have numerous clients with smaller totals. Make a spreadsheet indicating dates submitted, amounts, summary of work completed, and employers. Create follow-up schedules for slow-paying employers. This spreadsheet will also come in very handy for tax time.

•Kill with kindness – Only for the most egregious payment delays do you want to try to thump employers with the nasty stick or try to shame them into paying. You’re a professional, and your first collection attempts should be entirely polite. You should also keep your vocabulary in check. “Let me know the status of the outstanding invoice” is a much better phrase then “Didn’t receive payment today. What’s the deal?”

Today’s economy has definitely made slow and no payments a spreading epidemic.  What have your experiences been with difficult employers? Let us know how you you were able to secure your payments.

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The 5 Essential Ingredients of the Writer’s Website

writer's websiteWhen it comes to marketing your self-published book, there are times you can rely on others, but mostly you have to assume the role of a one-man or one-woman dynamo. And the prospect of creating your writer’s website can be exciting, but it can also be intimidating. What the heck do you put on it, anyway? Here are some essential ingredients for any writer doing some necessary self-promotion with his or her own website.

Home Page – Very short, perhaps only 150 words. This is the “in a nutshell” explanation of who you are, what book or books you are currently proud of and promoting, and any aspect of your biography that is compelling or that relates to your books. Remember, you’re never “trying” to be a writer, or “just giving this a shot.” Give yourself more credit than that: you ARE a writer! And always include a link to Amazon or wherever you have the book available for purchase. The best link is not just a boring text link, but a fairly big and high-res image of the book’s cover.

Book(s) Link – Each of your books should have a dedicated page. You should list the genre, a logline (an attention-grabbing two sentences laying out the premise of the book), and then an overview of the book in a couple of paragraphs. Include a link to purchase the book as you did on the Home Page. And feel free to list any accolades or awards the book has received.

About the Author – Write a brief, third-person biography of yourself. It should not be overly laudatory, but neither should you eschew including any accolades or personal triumphs as they relate to writing. If you have a “past life” prior to writing, don’t be bashful about talking about it: your experiences are part of your makeup as a writer.

Media – The media page is tricky. You’ll want to wait until you have a few noteworthy news items to present, whether that’s an interview on a local radio station, a book signing at a local book shop, or a review of your book on a well-known blog or website. And don’t call this a News page – if you have months where you have nothing to report, you’ll look like yesterday’s news!

Blog – In this day and age, the blog is a powerful tool that can help you build an audience. But don’t think of a blog as the albatross around your neck that you have to toil to update. Keep things short, update at least every couple of weeks, and write professionally – sorry, no winky emoticons. And if you’re really on the ball, you’ll cross-post blog entries to your Facebook page and your Twitter feed. No one said marketing your book was going to be easy!

These are obviously just the essentials. To the active authors out there: What pages do you consider essential for your site? Any inessential but interesting additions? Please share your ideas (and your website if possible!) in the comments!


6 Tips for Creating a Community Through Replies

Reply to CommentsContent is king, frequency is crucial, formatting and theme are important, and authorial tone (including humor) often makes a world of difference when it comes to successful blogging. But let’s talk about a sometimes-forgotten aspect of your blogging lifestyle: replying to comments.

Engaging your community through replies is extremely valuable, and especially for beginning bloggers who are in the process of building a brand and an audience. It gives commenters a sense that their views are important to you, and that they can make a difference in the direction or content of the current discussion. This will make them (and others) want to visit more. It also breaks down the rather imperial one-way street of blog content. When visitors feel that a blog’s content is going in two directions, they’re more likely to engage, increasing your traffic.

Here are six tips to start your moderating career off right.

  • Delete derogatory, racist, expletive-laced, or otherwise hate-filled speech. Don’t sink to their level and try to respond to or somehow deconstruct such comments. Not worth your time!
  • Combat comment spam. Naturally, you need to take steps to eliminate all of those wonderful broken English solicitations for designer handbags and Canadian pharmacy medications. Current versions of WordPress come with the anti-spammer plugin Akismet, and SpamFree is also a popular plugin. In any case, find a way to automate the process rather than burden yourself with the headache of manual deletions.
  • Brevity is your friend. Comments are not the place for entry-length commentary. Don’t take too much time and bury good content in replies that are harder to find than proper blog entries. If a reply warrants a whole other entry, make a new entry, and acknowledge the user who spurred the new topic.
  • Make like Gandhi with the haters. Unless you’ve cultivated a particularly tough persona and an appropriately tough audience, it doesn’t make much sense to spit venom back at those who denigrate your site, mock your expertise, and belittle what you have to offer. Non-constructive insult-slingers deserve just what they would if they called in to some huge corporation’s customer service department: an indifferent, diplomatic answer. “I’m sorry you didn’t respond to the entry. Please check back next time, and hopefully you’ll find something more to your liking.”
  • However, correct misconceptions. Vague insults are one thing; if someone is taking issue with a contention you’ve made, replies are the proper forum to engage in a healthy debate.
  • On a related note, freely admit when you’re wrong. Very few of us are some sort of unimpeachable masters of our field. First and foremost, we are intellectually curious and passionate about our topic of choice, and that’s what drives your content (and your audience). Check your pride at the door and acknowledge mistakes.

How do you handle replies? Do you think they’re useful in building a community?


9 Immutable Rules of Working from Home

home officeThe notion of “being your own boss” is attractive, but it comes with its share of pitfalls. Cash flow, particularly with new businesses, is always a concern. You’re destined to work yourself silly—which you’re more than willing to do because, hey, it’s your business—but still there’s the danger of burnout and spinning your wheels. And the always-fresh challenge of working with many different clients/customers is invigorating, but at the same time it can be stressful, and there are always certain clients out there ready to waste your time.

Here are the nine immutable, definitive, absolute, and indispensable rules for avoiding the pitfalls of working from home.

  1. Schedule Me Time – Working from home leaves you in a job “gray zone” that you have to separate into black and white. You need to separate business from pleasure, and home from work. Schedule times when you order yourself not to think about work.
  2. Exercise – Most work-from-home jobs are sedentary. You’re often just sitting at your computer. Not only will mandatory exercise (such as a middle-of-the-day walk) make you healthier, it will give you a refreshing break from the monotony so you can recharge your batteries.
  3. Create a Home Office – Sometimes you can’t create a separate home office because of budget or space considerations. But, similar to Rule #1, it’s beneficial to separate your home and work lives. Creating a separate home office gives you a quiet and dedicated space to think and work.
  4. Work on a Schedule – Discipline is often elusive in the work-from-home environment. Why not roll out of bed at noon, play around until 5pm, and then do some work around 6ish (if the game’s not on). Resist such impulses. Create a reasonable hourly schedule, and stick to it.
  5. Dress the Part – Just because you can come to work in your underwear doesn’t mean you have to. Get professional and dress for success. The benefit is purely psychological, but it’s definitely a benefit.
  6. Work Means Work – There are so many great YouTube clips. “Did you see the one with the cat made from a PopTart flying on a rainbow through outer space?” NO! Stop the madness! When you’re working, you should be working, not lazily surfing through the web, watching TV, sprinkling in some housework, or anything else.
  7. Put a Chokehold on the Finances – Working from home can be dangerous to your financial health, whether it’s letting tax debt accumulate, fighting clients about invoices, or balancing growing your business with everyday expenses. Keep spreadsheets so you know where you’re at, pay your estimated taxes, keep a nest egg on hand, and don’t let money issues consume your business!
  8. Invoice Aggressively – There’s nothing quite like slow-paying clients to put a fly in the ointment. Get out in front of invoicing. Let clients know ahead of time when to expect invoices. Keep a list of receivables, and maintain a schedule of reminders for slow-payers.
  9. Keep Lists – Stay on target by creating a list each night of what to accomplish the next morning. Don’t make it ambitious, just doable. This will keep your work focused.

Any other can’t-do-without rules to share? List them below!