Personnel Issues 101 for Writers

The moon setting yesterday morning at dawn. So lovely. I don’t recall ever seeing the moonset so often in other places I’ve lived.

In my first job after grad school, I worked in a laboratory. We did testing of water samples, analysis of tissues from game animals, disease diagnosis. Lots of different activities and specialties. Depending on the season, probably 10-12 people worked there. Mostly women. It’s a funny thing about labs – it’s a profession that attracts women. So, this was not only my first real, career-type job, it was also my first experience working day-in and day-out with a bunch of women.

Now, I love my gender, but I suspect that what I say here won’t come as much of a surprise.

Women can be a pain to work with. Especially to other women. There’s an unfortunate cattiness that comes out. An eternal jockeying for attention and one-upsmanship. If you’ve never experienced this, you are blessed indeed. If you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

A couple of the other gals complained about me. I got called in to see the lab manager. He said I spent too much time walking around with a cup of water in my hand. (Going back and forth to the water cooler.) He said I didn’t look busy enough. When I pointed out that I analyzed more samples than anyone else in the lab each day, he said that didn’t matter. What mattered was how busy I looked.

Yeah, he was a terrible manager. That didn’t help.

But, what I discovered over time was, that it didn’t really matter what I said or did. The key to resolving the issues lay in finding ways to get along with these gals. Which I eventually figured out. (After months and months of awfulness, but that’s neither here nor there.) It was a valuable learning experience.

A few years back, I served on the board of a writers organization. One of the women on the board continually fell into “misunderstandings” and all out wars with other members of the organization. We hear about this kind of thing going on in various chapters. The thing about this gal was, despite being a middle-aged woman, she’d never worked in a corporate environment. She just couldn’t see the value of giving ground on something she believed to be True and Right, in favor of getting along with other people.

The thing of it is, and I know it isn’t fair, the burden truly falls on us to deal with difficult people. Because we can’t make them stop being difficult. All us reasonable types can do is find ways to minimize the damage they can do. They may be the landmines, but the adept person finds the ways to avoid setting them off.

Another acquired skill.

Anyone got a good story for how they dealt with a difficult person?

Mind the Deadlines

Gorgeous sunset last night. I love how it looks like the sun has set something on fire, with blazing smoke billowing away.

Yesterday I was on a phone call for the day job about a report that needs revision. We went over the points and the gal in charge asked me how long it would take me to make the fixes. Now, I’d received this report with comments about three minutes before the call started. But I made a guess, added half as much again and told her the number of hours. She agreed and we were off and running.

This is definitely an acquired skill in our business.

Working for a consulting firm means getting really good at knowing how long a project will take. We operate entirely on billable hours. There is very little room for overhead hours – and Accounting gets most of those. Everything we do needs to be directly billable to a client or a project. Because a client is paying for your time, you don’t get to waste that time. And, because we have to give estimates and costs up front, being able to accurately estimate is a very necessary skill.

In fact, this is often something that newbies with the company struggle to learn. Many people are not naturally good at knowing how long a project takes. Some habitually run over deadline – or frantically work to finish up until the last moment. A lot of people develop the habit in school of starting way ahead of time, so there’s room to spare. None of these are practical in the business world. A missed deadline can mean a contract violation and rarely do we have the opportunity to start something early, because we have other projects to work on. Besides, you’re often waiting on data from a client, so you have to be ready to roll when they send it.

I think the correlation to the writing life is obvious.

The publishing process involves a lot of hurry up and wait. You wait on line edits. You wait on copy edits. Then, when your editor sends them, she usually asks if she can have it back in two weeks. Or five days.

Now, this is the important part.

You have to know what the answer is.

It’s easy to just agree, but then you have to do it. You have to be really good at knowing how much time you really have available (and really, robbing from sleep hours is just a bad idea) and how much time the job will take. My tried and true formula, as you may have noticed above, is to figure how long I think it will take and add half-again. So, if I think a job will take 40 hours, I estimate 60 hours. This usually works for most people, because we all seem to have a tendency to underestimate. I rarely need the full half-again, but it gives me a bit of a buffer, in case I really missed my guess.

How else do you learn to do this? Practice, practice, practice. I give myself writing deadlines and measure how well I do on meeting them. This also takes being able to look at your work habits with an unflinchingly honest eye. Knowing yourself – and accepting who you are and how you work – is key to making accurate estimates of work time. If you start to think “Oh, but this time it will be different…” you’re already going down the wrong road.

Good luck!

Email Lives Forever and Ever

This photo is for Laura Bickle. She knows why.

In the movies, there’s often a motif of someone seeking a particular document with important information. The bad people try to destroy it and the good people make lots of copies and put them in safety-deposit boxes or mail them to reporters. Usually the bad people manage to destroy most of the copies, but one will triumphantly make it through, to damn them before the world of public opinion.

This can never work in the world of email.

When I first became involved with some of my author loops, I was very surprised to encounter the “rule” that you could not forward emails off-loop. The thing is, that kind of thing is a courtesy and absolutely unenforceable. At the company I work for, all emails are considered company property and are archived for years. Nobody would ever say an email can’t be forwarded. Because, of course, it easily can. There is really only one true rule:

Never put anything in an email you wouldn’t want brought before the ethics committee or read in public. Or before a judge.

Last week saw a new author blow up over reviews, only with a new spin. A reviewer on Amazon gave a book a scathing review. Yes, it was harsh, mocking the book for being what the reviewer saw as a Twilight rip-off. The author did not melt down publicly over this. However, the reviewer received a forwarded email allegedly written by this author and sent to a group of friends or readers. The email asked them to go to Amazon and rate the review as unhelpful, so it would drop off the screen.

Brouhaha ensued.

I don’t know if anyone established if this was true, but the principle applies in general. An important lesson I’ve learned from my day job about being a writer. Assume that anything you put in an email, even to trusted friends or a “private” loop, can be made public.

And if it’s juicy, it probably will.

Give Me Leave or Give Me Burnout

This is my partner cat, being helpful and giving me advice on my line edits. Never mind that Stephanie Draven’s website is up on the screen. A girl can take a break now and again.

In fact, that’s my topic today in the How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer series: time off.

I see a lot of writers on the internet saying things like this:

“It’s Saturday and the family is off to the park, but there are no weekends for writers.”

“Writers don’t get vacations.”

“It might be midnight, but I’m working because writers don’t have timeclocks.”

I’m sure you’ve seen it, too. Now, a lot of this is just toss-off stuff. People who are under deadline babble about all kinds of things. They’re kind of like the drunks at the bar at 3am, who’ve been there since Happy Hour, and keep arguing that it can’t possibly be last call. They’ve lost touch with reality. Don’t try to reason with them.

There is the syndrome of writers using vacation time from the day job to write. That’s something else entirely. Usually that’s a treat and a much more leisurely schedule than trying to get the writing done AND doing the day job.

My company offers us a very generous benefits package. They deliberately set out to create that for us. We get ten holidays, four weeks of vacation (if you’ve been there long enough), two personal days, forty hours of sick leave, plus another forty with supervisor approval. They are very good to us. And it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts.

It’s an investment in us as the primary assets of the company.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that, as a consulting firm, the company I work for has no product outside of the brains of its staff. We work hard. We work long hours, sometimes under grueling conditions with difficult clients. And they expect us to take time off to recover.

I don’t have to connect the dots here, do I?

As writers (or whatever discipline you’d like to insert here), our product comes from ourselves. Just as the industrial types have to sometimes shut down the factory for maintenance, we must give ourselves down time, as well. The problem is, writers are more or less self-employed. Nobody gives you a list of the paid time-off you can take.

Which means we have to do it for ourselves.

It would be interesting to know if any full-time writers do this – issue themselves a certain amount of holiday, vacation and sick leave. It would be an interesting way to keep yourself accountable. And to minimize screwing-off time, too. If you have a leave bank, then you could take the time off guilt free.

All theoretical for me right now.

The “No One Edits Me” Syndrome

This isn’t a great photo, but I wanted to show you all what a pretty blue this pinon jay is. He doesn’t much like me pointing the camera at him, though.

For today’s installment on the How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer series, I want to talk about Quality Assurance (QA).

I once saw an interview with Anne Rice, who has long been one of my very favorite authors. This was right around the peak of her career. After The Witching Hour, when the Lestat books were oh-so-good. She was riding high, confiding to the televised audience that she’d been given a phenomenal amount of money for her next six books. She even said how much it was, as her contract forbade her to do, so that we would all know we could do it, too. At one point, she gave the interviewer a look and said, “Oh, believe me – No One edits ME.”

I’ve never forgotten it.

Especially as I slogged through her next books, each worse than the last, chock full of rambling and irrelevant information. I wondered what the hell she was thinking. Now I understand what her problem was.

She didn’t spend years in a corporate day job.

I think a lot of us have this idea about our work, whatever work it might be, that there’s something holy and perfect about it. And, if someone finds a flaw, this is somehow a personal indictment. When we’re young, especially, it’s almost unbearable to receive criticism of our work. Each point feels like a little flesh wound and we’re terrified of bleeding out.

In a work environment, you grow out of this really damn fast. Or you don’t succeed.

My firm does environmental consulting. I usually say I’m a data-jockey, but a seat-mate on an airplane recently corrected me and said, “No, you’re much more, because you understand policy. You look at the numbers, but then you bring the understanding of how to apply them in real-world situations.” That’s likely apropos of nothing, but I thought it was an interesting insight.

But that is what we do. I work with a lot of really smart people and we’re paid to give good advice. Our CEO often remarks that we have practically no inventory – the value of the company rests entirely in the brains of the staff. If our numbers aren’t spot-on or our reasoning isn’t sound, then we have no product.

QA is king.

We have levels upon levels of QA. People read, they spot check, they read again. If a client questions anything, we go over it again. Exhaustively. Believe me, if you ever had any ego tied up with being edited, you lose it. They’re not flesh wounds. This is people telling you when you have spinach in your teeth before the big photo shoot. Edit me – please!

On one of my writers’ loops lately, someone commented that an editor had asked for a revise and resubmit. She said she didn’t agree with the editor’s take and so she planned to self-publish it. I thought of my current client, who asks for all kinds of revisions I don’t agree with and how I do them anyway. Now, granted, this is my client’s report and not “the book of my heart,” but it is also my job. That’s what they pay me to do.

It occurs to me that, if I want them to pay me to write, then it becomes my editor’s book, too. And my publisher’s book. If I want them to invest in me and my book, then we all work together to make it a great product. As a writer, I have no real inventory. All the value is in my head. Without careful polishing, I have no product.

That’s just good business.

How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer

Writing is a funny business.

We all know this. It’s a funky combination of emo artistry, social climbing, and snake-oil salesmanship. Now with the internet, we all get a ringside seat to the various shenanigans. The word “professionalism” gets bandied about a lot. Unfortunately, the people who seem to use it the most, often wielding it like a club to silence detractors, are the least professional at all.

From time to time I’ve bemoaned my corporate day job. For a number of years now I’ve been working towards supporting myself as a full-time writer. I’m lucky to work for a company whose mission I believe in and who treats me well. I’ve been with them coming up on 15 years. I’ve learned a great deal over the years, about dealing with colleagues, with clients and all the delicate balances of the corporate world.

I’ve realized recently that, as much as I’ve wished I’d spent the last 15 years writing instead of in this career, what I’ve learned will make me a better writer overall. So, I’m going to spend the next week or so exploring some of these lessons. Things like:

1) Understanding billable hours and being good at knowing how long something will take to do.

2) Taking advantage of leave time, because you need it.

3) Accountability and working with other people.

4) Working when you don’t want to.

5) Professional relationships – remembering the boundaries

6) Teamwork – dealing with edits and QA/QC

Let me know if you all have other topic ideas. I might even host some guest bloggers, if you have a particular tale to tell along these lines.

Should be fun!