How To Work With Freelancers

Disclaimer: I schedule these posts months in advance, so if we have beef now, we didn’t when I scheduled this.

            Oof, it feels weird to write this one. I mean, it’s not exactly “Throw out their grain every night no later than six. They’re used to me coming home at 5:30 so they’ll get grumpy if they get too hungry.” But there are a whole lotta things I wish I knew before I got thrust into positions of leadership, much less positions where I had to make decisions. Hopefully, I can keep someone else from making the same mistakes, and just for spice, I threw in the habits of some of my least favorite bosses.

            They’re just people, bro. Maybe they’re not available right now because they’re taking the kids to Disney Land! Every people comes with baggage. Sometimes that thing is late because they’re fist fighting a land shark, or more likely, doing something like dealing with a family emergency. Yes, you need the thing, and you need it on time, but you also need empathy and compassion if you want to keep that talent in your corner. Another thing that will help you is to keep track of their time zone, that way you’re not asking for urgent work at their 3am.

            Be clear about what you want. If you want a drawing of a guy, playing a fish shaped banjo, on The Great Wall of China, then you need to tell your freelancer that you want a guy, playing a fish shaped banjo, on The Great Wall of China. Don’t just say “Some person, on a wall, playing some sort of oddly shaped instrument.” that’s hecka up to interpretation. If you’re not clear you could get some lady, sitting on a garden wall, playing a heart shaped guitar. Which, then you will be sad because that is not what you wanted.

            Be clear about when you want it. This one gets tricky for me. I’ve worked on an “as you’re able, and I still have money to pay you” basis, but as the event I needed the work for got closer, it got hairy. You know what it’s like when a person with three feet of hair starts loosing hair from stress? Not fun. And you’ll find it in your food. Don’t do this to me, Joe. Pick a deadline out of the air. Even if it’s “within the next six months” it will help a lot. And if it is “soon”, “soon” is not a real deadline. “By the last day of the month” is. To be honest, I’ve done it to others too. You need solid dates you can nail down on a calendar. It will help you, and the team stay on track.

            Come with a napkin drawing. You remember banjo fish guy? I promise you, if you show up with a stick figure drawn on a greasy napkin, your freelancer will be excited. A really crappy version of what you want is better than no version of what you want. I can tell you from experience, as a free lance social media manger, that it’s a lot easier to adjust a message from a newsletter, and change it to a Facebook post, than to wonder “Is this right? Am I allowed to say that? Is this too edgy? This is what they meant, right?” Because with social media management, you’re often turning three paragraphs into three sentences at most. (Yes, I am taking on new clients. Message me for more information.)

            Stop hovering. Micromanagement drives me batty! Either you come with “I made this [rough sketch of fish banjo guy] but I just need you to clean it up.” or you stop telling them how to do their job. I had a boss that would try to stand over me while I was working on the company newsletter and try to dictate to me like I was a scribe. “Tell them that…” It was very distracting, because often times we weren’t even working on the same place.

            Eventually my patience wore thin and I said “Why don’t you make a draft of what you want to say in your office, then email it to me?”

            I feel I was polite enough, but I believe he got the message because he blushed and said “No thank you. You write in your off time…” then went to his office.

            I had another boss that would physically stand in my way to survey me while I worked on an assembly line, then complain when my productivity went down. Other times, she’d take the work out of my hands, try to show me how to do it, do a much worse job than me because she hadn’t been doing it 100 times every day (I’m not exaggerating) for the past few months, then, once again, act surprised when productivity and quality went down.

            I understand. The people under your employ and the things they produce are a reflection of you. But you hired them because you trust them. If you don’t, why did you hire them?! Admittedly, I have had to go behind people I’ve worked with and make slight adjustments (now everyone I’ve ever worked with is going “Omg, was it me?!”), but it’s a lot better than having to present the world your napkin drawing.

            Don’t say it’s good when it’s not. Sometimes, you shouldn’t make that adjustment yourself. “Can you change the font? That’s a little hard to read.” is completely different than hovering. That “Well, what do you think?” usually means the freelancer showed you work for feedback before finalizing it, and they want your input. It’s completely different from standing over someone while they work!

            “I will certainly take a look at this for you before you finalize it” > “What are you doing now?”

            Get it? The difference is they asked.

            Communicate, communicate, communicate! That’s it. That’s the secret to any relationship. Communicate.

            But you have to watch how you communicate. You also have to learn how they communicate. I ran into that with a boss I friggin’ adored, and accidently made a mess of things. Some people need direct, clear, communication. Some people need a gentler approach my Germanic butt is still learning. Paying attention to how someone needs you to communicate with them is the hardest part, but you’ll learn as you go, and you get to know them.

            Use contracts where you can. Gentleman’s agreements are all well and good. My friends and I are just generally happy to work for each other! But even so, contracts set those healthy boundaries, and give a sense of expectations on to both (or all) parties.

            Throw out their grain every night no later than six. Oh wait. They’re not horses. Don’t do that.

            They are your partners, not your slaves or servants. I’m going to tick off a lot of employers by saying this, however, someone has to say it. You, an employer, hire talent because that person either has a talent you don’t have or because you don’t have enough hands, or hours in the day, to perform that talent. Be it a cover artist, or a ranch hand, you needed them. And you know what? If they’re worth their salt, they’re going to be snapped up by someone else if you mistreat them. They don’t owe you butt kisses. Treat them like a partner; keep them in the loop, communicate with them, tell them what you need and what you expect. You didn’t buy them from some online slave auction, and they can and will leave if you mistreat them. Do not abuse your role in their life. They are not horses.

            Pay them on time. For the love of all that is holy, PAY THEM. I’ve seen more than one friendship ruined over that. Whether it was cash, farm fresh eggs, your first born, or that weird braid on the back of your head you only think no one knows about, you need to pay them what you promised them when you promised it. If life punched you in the jaw, tell them so! “Can you please hang on to this work? I’ve hit a hard time financially, but I hope to pay you within the next three months. Thank you for your time and dedication.”

            Or, alternatively “Hey bro. My mom found The Neck Braid and made me clip it. I need time to grow you another one, but The Neck Braid will live again!”

            And no. You don’t get the work until you pay for it. Don’t let them give it to you either. That’s immoral. No one wants to work for free. If you run off with the work in hand, you’ll forget you haven’t paid them. But you should also give them a general idea of when you think you’ll be able to pay them. Maybe you’ll be paying them a little each month until it’s paid off!

            All in all, just remember they’re people, not horses… Much less robots! And you hired them because they know what they’re doing, but you also need to communicate and tell them what you want. Set up the expectations of your professional relationship, then actually pay them. You’ll be fine. There will be hard days, but that’s the biz, kid.

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Enjoy the Best, Attend the Movies

            “Enjoy the best, attend the movies” was painted on the side of Torrington’s historic Wyoming Theater. (Check out this article about our beloved theatre.) I saw it every day on my way to work for years. Pretty rad old tymie sign if you ask me. So Helen, why are we talking about movies? I thought we were book people! As a whole, we are entertainment people. We work in the entertainment industry. Books are entertaining. Which is why I can relate to “The Way I Am” by Eminem so hard.

            During the first part of the ongoing apocalypse I found my solace in movies. I mean, I was unemployed and my friends were dead. Watching five movies or more a day was pretty common for someone in that situation before Covid. I promise, Covid didn’t help any. I didn’t just watch movies, I consumed them. I got online, made memes with the screencaps, which, when a bunch of people did it all at once it attracted the attention of the creators. I chatted up writers, directors, voice actors, animators, the intern at the studio, anyone who would talk to me about my favorite movies. We were all trapped inside. It was nice to comfort each other. Bruh, I know way too much about Swan Princess. (I like animation. Bite me.)

            Watching all these movies from the Goodwill pile changed the way I saw the world. I learned to add Hollywood flair to my work. Like, I learned about how sometimes cinematic creators will use a particular color to portray a mood, or as a symbol. For instance, one of my friends pointed out that Carmen Sandiego (the new series remake. Haven’t seen it.) is about to win a fight when the background is red.  But when the background is blue we need to worry for Carmen. She’s vulnerable. She’s outmatched. She’s in trouble! Red is a warm color, and blue is a cold color. When you feel on top of the world you feel like, well, “hot stuff”, when you feel sad you, you have “the blues”. It’s things like that I started seeing and noticing when you watch a crudton of movies and then go discuss them with your friends.

            I feel like it gave me a subtle streak. If you’ve ever met me in person you know subtle is not my middle name. I’m a big girl, who wears boots everywhere, and because I came from a community populated by German and Russian immigrants I am extremely direct and generally speak my mind. Subtle doesn’t come naturally to me! I play trumpet! You ever hear a trumpet try to play subtly? Anyway, because I’ve had a visual on beautiful storytelling, I feel like I’m more equip to sneak in these odd little details.

            Like foreshadowing! Foreshadowing is done best when it’s not clapping your audience in the face. Like, foreshadowing would be watching the king fall asleep on the throne and his crown slips off, a few chapters before the crown is taken from him by a foreign power. Even though he knew the threat was there, he chose not to do anything until it was too late. Not subtle would be me watching you and your girlfriend of one month have a white trash screaming match in a Walmart parking lot. Then when you walk by I would whisper “Foreshadowing“. The only thing it would be foreshadowing would be a miserable romantic relationship, and the loss of our friendship because sometimes I’m neither funny or helpful.

            Dude, all I’m saying is don’t be afraid to study movies. They’re just visual story telling. We do stories here. Learning new techniques isn’t plagiarism. Sometimes it’s easier to consume because the director knows you haven’t showered in four days, are no longer capable of sentient thought, and are surviving on cheese puffs. They literally just spoon feed you a good yarn. It’s great. Go embrace the movie magic, fambilam.

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Do You Need to be a Reader to be a Writer?

            Do you need to be a reader to be a writer? I don’t actually know! I’ve never not been a reader. I do know every human being and the face of the planet has a story to tell. Frankly, I see a direct correlation between poverty and the inability to access reading material or education. Whoever, this blog isn’t about why you shouldn’t condescend to people who have less than you. Obviously, you’re reading. I assume, logically, you are a reader. What I do not know is being a reader is a job requirement to being a writer, I do know the benefits.

            1. You need to know the book industry.

            You need to know the current market trends. Books about covid are out, Publishers scrambling to gain footing in the industry again. I see a lot of YA fantasy going out on the shelves. You, as a writer, need to be able to identify when the appropriate time for your novel to make its debut. And that is whether or not you’re planning on self-publishing or traditional publishing. Often times by reading you will find publishing houses that produce the similar works to yours. You need to subscribe to the newsletters, follow presses on Instagram, and learn as much as you possibly can about your chosen industry.

            2. You will learn what is and isn’t appropriate for your readers by reading.

            There are particular things that audiences of different genres of fiction will not tolerate. As an example, I love children’s literature. I love picture books! However, while I still had my subscription to Kindle unlimited I had to quit reading self-published children’s books. Some of the books I encountered were just downright grotesque. There are set rules in every genre, but children’s literature has the most. The goal is to educate children, not traumatize them. Which is why traditionally published children’s books have so many stringent rules. By reading books from your chosen genre, whether it is children’s literature, fantasy, Si-fi, LGBT+, fiction, Western, nonfiction, or romance– by reading you will learn the unspoken rules.

            3. You will Anglish gooder.

            Why yes, reading will improve your grammar, spelling, vocabulary, diction, and in general make you Anglish gooder. If you’re like me, and I like to pretend I’m a special snowflake, you’re a redneck who does actually talk that way (“gooder anglish”) when they get really tired. Obviously I had to learn to code switch from somewhere. Part of it can be credited with books. (I did go to school, I do watch movies, and listen to the radio, etc.) There’s a certain something about seeing words on a page that helps you make words on a page, and that’s important too.

            Listen, books are much more accessible than that were 20 years ago. 100 years ago! In the 1800’s when they were institutionalizing women for “novel reading”! Most of my friends that experience homelessness from time to time have an android phone. There are multiple apps for reading. In fact, I use an app from the State Library to listen to audiobooks while I clean hotel rooms for a living. I love the fact that audiobooks have made reading more accessible to people who have visual impairments, and to people who have trouble processing information visually. Now if you have a pair of headphones and a phone you can read! It’s amazing! And even if you are missing the WiFi to download books, the library can help you there too.

            Some people just don’t enjoy reading. And that’s fine! If you just want to write your book, put it out there, and be done with it, go ahead don’t worry about reading. I do believe that if you want to be serious about your career in writing you need to read. If rolling up your sleeves and getting serious about a career in entertainment isn’t in the cards for you right now because you’re just trying to survive the winter, then don’t feel guilty! Sometimes survival is doing your best. If you don’t have time to read right now I’m not going to shame you for it. You’re allowed to be a hobbyist. I think being a reader will greatly advance your writing career, but I do not know if it hinges upon it.

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Things I Would Tell My Younger Self

            I published my debut novel before I could legally have a beer. One of the side effects of being young is having the opportunity to learn through experience. Sometimes experience feels about as pleasant as stepping on a rake. Sometimes experience feels like riding a singing narwhal through a music video #Awesome. Here are the things I would tell my younger self if I got the opportunity:

This be the younger Helen.
  • They are coming. Light the beacon in the watch tower. There is still time. (We could’ve saved the citadel, but alas, it has fallen.)
  • Brush your friggin’ hair, ragamuffin… Oh, oh, you just brushed it. It just does that. My bad, dude.
  • If make-up is itchy and uncomfortable don’t wear it. If make-up makes you feel pretty like a Viking about to go into battle, then wear it. Don’t wear it, or not wear it, to impress other people.
  • You look cute, stop fretting. (Yes, I know this is my third comment about my appearance but I’m looking at photos.)
  • I literally do not know how you did it. You fought off poverty and mental illness with one hand, then threw on a smile and some fake nails from the dollar store, and sold books with the other hand. Are you homeless right now? I guess by some standards you are. Eh, you always find a safe place to sleep at night, and food to eat in the morning. That in itself is impressive.
  • It’s okay if you don’t feel like a woman 100% of the time. The world sees you as a woman 100% of the time, and knowing what that feels like is the reason you decided to make a feminist brand centered on helping teenage girls find their power.
  • Take more pictures.
  • Quit hating on social media. That’s your future bread and butter.
  • Quit being so snobby! Jeesh! This is a projection of your insecurity. You’re afraid you’ll never be anything more than a dirty little kid from Cow Town. Who cares if you’re not! When you’re old (me) you’re going to wish life was simple.
  • You have so many reasons to be proud though.
  • Please, please, please, start trusting people to show up and show out for you. I know exactly why you don’t, and how and where you got hurt, but I promise, the ones who showed up are your ride or dies.
  • Seeing your name in lights will get you higher than any substance you could ever abuse. Grind.
  • Stop caring what people think so much… I know I did. *Profuse sweating*
  • *Heavy sigh* I know you’re poor but you should’ve really hired a line editor. Yes, you. Not the publisher. You still did your best though. I’ll fix it later…
  • Okay, seriously, that mean thought you’re having about yourself? No one else is thinking it… Except that one guy in the corner, but he can suck a lemon. Do you know how hard it is to make people care about something? I do it for money now (marketing) and I can tell ya, no one’s paying that much attention.
  • Consider a pen name. You get stalked multiple times. (You know I keep that thang on me! *Opens coat to reveal a loaf of French bread*)
  • There’s nothing wrong with staying single while you focus on your career. [Probably.] Men is too headache.
  • Say thank you. I know you already did but just say it one more time to be certain.
  • Frick, I am so proud of you. You saw what you wanted and you went after it. You didn’t compromise. Traditionally publishing a book before you can shoot whiskey is quite the feat! …Bruh, they don’t let kids smoke until 21 these days! Weird, huh?
  • You’re not a bad person for sewing some wild oats. Just minimalize casualties.
  • Stop being embarrassed of your Goshen County accent. It’s part of who you are.
  • While you should not be embarrassed by your accent, code switching is a thing. And there is a time, and place, and season, for everything under heaven.
  • I know you’re doing that weird thing young people do where they look for somewhere to belong. I promise you, it’s not where you think it is, and you and your people have next to nothing in common. Ya’ll just get together and make magic though!
  • Write every day. Even if it’s just a sentence.
  • You have pretty eyes. *Bats eyelashes*
  • Stop working to impress your enemies. You will never be good enough for them. Just kick some dirt over that poop and keep walking.
  • I’m serious about the pen name. You could’ve been Wait. Helen Wait.
  • It is a privilege to be yeeted from the presence of your haters.
  • That speech you made out of nowhere? That was hecka impressive. I don’t know that I could do that today. That was dope.
  • Not compromising your dreams, and being flexible are two different things. I like your moxie though.
  • Hug the cat again for me, would you?
  • That thing you’re worried about. Yeah, it turns out okay.
  • The master sword sleeps in the crypt. They will probably never guess the riddle to find the crypt. Do not find it. They will torture you for information. Let what was once the citadel rest in peace.

            Anyway, that was a strange and beautiful time where I learned a lot. Mostly about marketing and salesmanship! Also the value of friendship, and I don’t mean monetary. I’m excited to publish again because Drakarium Publishing saw potential in me, and I’m excited to do book signings again because The Wyoming Arts Council saw potential in me! I am grateful I got to learn all these lessons myself though because the cup of tea I was just drinking told me “One thorn of experience is worth a whole forest of warning” -James Russell Lowell

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No One Is Going to Do It For You

            A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, and not in the future because I can’t see that direction, I was in the chow line. There happened to be to writers behind me and I started eves dropping in on their conversation. One writer was a sweet lady who looked like she could make a mean pineapple upside-down cake, trying to write children’s books about dogs, the other was a gentleman about the same age as her who had written an action thriller of some sort.

            The guy looks down at her with these big ol’ puppy dog eyes and says “If I submit your book to publishers will you submit mine?”

            “I uh…”

            “We can trade?” He twists his cap in his hands and tries to look cute.

            I know this woman with the kind face is not going to say “No.” which is a complete sentence, by the way, and I so want to step in and be like “UH-UH!” She finally says “Uh-okay, I guess…” and they swap emails.

            I knew this dude was about to let her work her butt off to get his book published while he switched up on her and “Oooooh, I’ve been too busy!” That’s reason number one you shouldn’t do that with other writers. The second is that they were working in two very different genres. Chances are he reads action thrillers, and she reads kid lit. Because that’s what they enjoy. So there’s very little chance a fellow writer, who is not an agent, will have read any of the books that press makes. Sometimes when I really get heavy on submitting to publishers I wind up with some of my new favorite books coming in the mail. The two that come to mind are Eat Knucklehead, and Three Sailors and A Hermit. Third, there are so many kinds of different publishing houses out there you need to know what you want to find the right one. I’ve been offered multiple contracts for Tales from the Gishlan Wood but the fits weren’t right so we parted ways.

            I’ve had it happen to me too. Friends have asked me to write their books, I’ve dated men who want me to make their career finally get up off the ground (the first step is put down the whiskey bottle, Benjamin. You’re not Hemingway. Make it happen and clear you head so you can function!) And I’ve met people who want me to “help” them find a publisher. I.e. do all the heavy lifting and research.

            I’m happy to cheerlead! I’m happy to text you and hold you accountable! I’m happy to drop you a link that may or may not work for your purposes. But ain’t nobody gunna do it for you. Rachel Hollis told me “No one cares about your dreams as much as you do.” Meaning, out of all those cheerleaders you have no one is going to cry and hurt as much as you will if your dreams don’t come true. Your friends will be sad but it’s not their battle. It’s yours. So stop trying to get others to do your work for you.

            And I mean, I’ve done it too. The last time I was 14 and just wrote War and Chess. We didn’t consistently have a computer and internet at my house because Dad used to take the computer and it’s hotspot with him to work his nightshift as a security guard. So I asked him if he’d research publishers for me while he was at work. Both my parents just laughed and said “Do it yourself, kid.” So I wound up doing it at school a lot, and whenever my father wasn’t working. Gosh, I do not miss explaining to grumpy teachers why I only had internet sometimes. Or a word processor. I used to write my essays in cursive in red ink and count the words by hand. Let’s all stop for a minute and count our blessings.

            The biggest thing in your way is you. I have a friend who writes too. She’s a journalist. She writes and edits on her phone. Ladies, gentleman, and those in-between, that is dedication. I admire her so much. So what’s stopping  you? One of my teachers made us all memorize the mantra “adapt, improvise, overcome”. At the very least you have internet some of the time or you wouldn’t be reading this.

            Setbacks happen. Believe me, I know. I’ve been rereading some old blog posts and they’re hurting my feelings because I really emphasize taking the time to do it right. K, cool, me. That was before I felt like giving up! Guess I just can’t now! You have to power through them, be like water, and find a way around the problem.

            No one cares about your career as much as you do. Make it happen and stop expecting others to do it for you. Do your homework, do your research, keep on keeping on, don’t give up.

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Characters Are Not Built in a Day

            I love the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Yes, I am fully aware they’re cornier than Nebraska. My dream wedding is also on a ship while I fight zombies, in international waters, with our captain acting as justice of the peace. Knowing this my mother made me learn multiple marriage traditions so I wouldn’t come home accidently married before I ran off to sail the world with my boyfriend. (Notice what I did there?) One scene that drives me to the brink of insanity, right from the very first time I saw the movie (here there be spoilers) is in the fifth one when Jack becomes Captain Jack Sparrow in one fell swoop. He fought one bad guy, got his name, most of his jewelry, his compass, and maybe even his hat. It was a transformation scene that gave the audience whiplash.

            I just assume you’re sitting down, giving this piece your undivided attention, stroking my already massive ego. Take stock of all you’re wearing. What’s in your pockets? Your backpack? Your purse? Why did you get that tattoo? We’ll pick on me for now. I’ve got one ring on my hand, and a ton of bracelets on my left arm, a bright pink sweater, and a knife, a lighter, and a ton of keys. The ring I got as a gift when I was 15; the tons of bracelets I collect. One of the bracelets is a hair tie that is also a friendship bracelet, another is one I picked up at a writing conference. My sweater came from a coworker who liked me because I was nice to her son. It’s not something I would’ve picked for myself but I love it because she got it for me. She was a small woman and she just happened to have a designer XL neon sweater in the back of her closet she never wore. Her sister chewed her out in English so that means I was meant to hear the sister say “That’s expensive!”. The knife I carry every day is more utility than sentiment. It also just so happens to be a gift from the ex I tried to sail the world with. The lighter was a gift from my father. The design on it is mountains with a crescent moon. Looking on scenes like that make me feel like I came home. As well as utility, it is a good luck charm. I used to wonder off into the woods frequently and you don’t want to do that without a reliable way to start a fire. I am 100% endorsing Zippo here. A good windproof lighter can save your life. As for the keys: I’m obviously one of the nine pirate lords and there’s a chest we have to unlock together in the 6th movie. I just keep it on me for when Hollywood calls. They certainly don’t go to my diary! Or my house for that matter! But all of these things, hanging off my sorry corpse and in my pockets, are little pieces of bigger stories. Not, I just came out of the sea like Aphrodite and there I was! A whole Helen M. Pugsley. Characters take years to become who they are.

            No, I don’t mean you should spend years building Bob the tomato vendor. I’m just saying, maybe Bob has a bullet scar on his chest from when he was a younger and wilder man. That can be cannon but that event could’ve [would’ve and should’ve] happened well before your story’s timeline begins. I mean, really, scars aren’t scars the day you get them. Maybe that’s why Bob hates fireworks but told that punk who tried to rob him to “go home and love your girlfriend and your child before I snap you like a dried twig.” People need time to become people. People need their spicy memories, battle scars, weird jewelry, tattoos, favorite sweaters, favorite flavor of ice cream that actually tastes like their cousin beating cancer for the 3rd time, good luck charms, and sentimental crap they pack around for no real reason.

            Ogres have layers, onions have layers, characters have layers. And lest we forget parfait! Layers take time to develop. (Except parfait. You can get that at McDonalds. Literally fast food.) Build your character with multiple dimensions, let them go through stupid phases, lose their father’s pocket watch and purchase its replacement at a swap-meet, fall in love and have it go wrong, tattoo the best day of their life in Roman numerals on their arm, and be just as complex as any of us! You’ll concoct a cool human.

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Let’s Talk About Trigger Warnings

            Trigger warnings and content warnings. Do they belong in books yet? I don’t really know. Will I continue to put them in every review I write because the material brought back “a spicy memory”? You bet your sweet bippy.

            So. What is a trigger warning? A trigger warning is something you put before material you created where you know there is something that is a common trigger for a lot of people. Triggers are things that bring someone great emotional distress because of things they have experienced in their lives. (Loss, sexual assault, prejudice, violence.) You know how your veteran friend hates fireworks? That’s a trigger.

            Well then, what is a content warning? A content warning is for things that generally make people uncomfortable. Things like fetish play, graphic violence, assorted phobias. Generally, just things you know someone in your following will be bothered by so you want to make sure they have time to mentally prepare themselves for it before they enjoy your creations to the fullest.

            I got really into making memes on Facebook during the apocalypse, and there, where 50K people are telling jokes to pass the time and cheer each  other up, trigger warnings and content warnings are very important. You want people to enjoy the things you make to their fullest extent. Not spend their evening reliving the worst times of their life. That will not win you positive feedback or great reviews.

            Another place I’ve seen trigger warnings and content warnings used heavily in web comics. I like horror. But I also like “Content Warning: Hey Helen, here’s one of your weirder phobias and this is going to be a reoccurring theme for a while.” It makes me stop and ask “Do I actually have the energy to read this right now or is it going to ruin my evening and then I won’t sleep?” I got to choose whether the media I was consuming was right for me. It was actually “CW: Being trapped underground.” I’m adventurous but caves make me uneasy. I took a breath and enjoyed not one, but three episodes of that web comic where our main character was stuck in an ever shifting tunnel. Without knowing that that was going to happen there is a chance I would have stopped reading the comic and not picked it back up.

            Do trigger/content warnings belong in books? I don’t really know. This is the first time creators, especially authors, have had this much control over what we get to show the public. What we get to keep making. You get to decide if what you created will upset your audience enough that you want to gently warn them before they start reading. It’s the same as “Oh, by the way, there’s a giant spider next to the faucet in the barn. She’s fairly harmless. Just don’t let her scare you.” You’re the creator. You get to decide.

            Either way, for social media, here’s how I taught the groups I moderate to tag their posts with questionable content. TW stands for Trigger Warning, and CW stands for Content Warning:

TW/CW: Example
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This is where you post most of the questionable content. There may be some in the accompanying image, but it is largely frowned upon. Adding all those dots allows people to scroll past quickly without looking at your post. This will keep you from getting kicked out of a lot of groups for being inconsiderate. It is the kind thing to do.

            All in all, it’s ultimately your decision. But now you have a general idea of what’s going on and why it’s important. Now you won’t accidently hurt someone with what you created.

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Go On An Adventure to Increase Your Creativity [Once You are Fully Vaccinated]

Oooooh, I’m so excited to finally be able to post this one!

No really. Don’t just hate-like other people’s trips on Instagram. Go on your own [once you are fully vaccinated]! I know what you’re thinking: “Helen, not everyone can afford a vacation!” I know! And that’s why I said “Go on an adventure.” I’m not telling you to go take some bazillion dollar vacation for 1,000 days and 1,000 nights, live in a cabana, and shirk your responsibilities so you can write. I’m telling you, leave the house once in a while and go explore [once you are fully vaccinated]. Then you’ll have some extra writing juice.

Here’s me at Guernsey Lake in February of 2020, before the freaking pandemic. 

Photo by Grace Nadeau

It was winter. It was the off season of the park. I was unemployed, and so was my buddy. Guernsey is practically in our back yard, it was a nice day so we just went. That, my dear, is what I mean by “adventure”. And honestly, it was a cheap adventure. I needed to top off my tank for $20, and since it was the off season it costed $6 to get in to the park. Really, you can’t go wrong with a cheap day trip. Just go [if at all possible because everyone’s life is different]. Take pictures and use all the #Travelgram hashtags like a cool kid!

“But Helen, whyyyy must I leave my cave?” Because you are a plant with feelings. I will not be citing my sources. But sitting indoors looking at the same walls cannot be good for you, as most of us found out during the pandemic. Go get some sun, look at a different town, go to a different McDonalds, the one on the other side of town, go off your particular beaten path. We all know the epic tale of Stephen King and his giant desk. King told us that tale out of caution. Doing nothing but making yourself hate the craft by pushing yourself too hard will not help you in the long run. One day you will quit and everyone will ask why. You’ll have to pause and say “I guess I got burnt out.” Ask me about music. I dare ya.

“But how do day trips make me write gooder?” (Hehe, you know you love me.) I’m sure you don’t write books that read like Saw movies. (The first saw film was made by some college film students on a tight budget. They wanted to see if they could make a movie with one room. They could.) Your characters are probably traveling across the land, searching far and wide, watching the sun set, riding horses, standing next to the ocean, meeting new people etc, etc. Sometimes you just need to go outside and listen to how snow crunches under your boots, or remember what a pool smells like, maybe go actually ride a horse. From the journal I was using back in spring, I have a bunch of scraps I call “studies”. One is me sitting on the trunk of my car, parked next to a lake in Utah, another me staring up at the stars on my lawn, and then there’s when I went to the Oregon Coast. The ocean and I have a long standing love affair. Chances are you’re not writing something where your main character is trapped, chained to a desk, stuck in a routine. Break free! Once you are fully vaccinated.

Kids, there’s more to life than writing. There’s more to writing than actually writing. Get living! As soon as it is safe for you to travel, do so. Don’t just hate-like other people’s adventures. Go get vaccinated and have your own! It doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking.

I had written this article shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic began and had to pull it before I told people to endanger their lives and others. (Bet you didn’t know I scheduled these months in advance, huh?) Now I’m asking “How many near death experiences do you need before you start tryna live?” We were all kind of trapped and in survival mode for over a year. Help yourself to healing and a dose of vaccine. Go get vaccinated and go party!

Please note, I will not be arguing with anti-vaccination comments. You know your own situation, and you know it’s your civic duty to protect your friends and neighbors by getting vaccinated if you are healthy enough to do so. Thank you for your continued support of my work.

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Different Books Hit Different People Different Ways

  Hey, that three star review has nothing to do with you.

            I know. Wild. They’re really not trying to insult you or your artistry.

            Not to braaaaaaaag or anything but I read over 100 books in quarantine. By the time you read this I’ll probably be up to 150. And you know what? I didn’t particularly care for every book I read. Here’s my personal rating system:

            ★★★★★ “Omigob, this book is amazing, everyone in the world should read it.”

            ★★★★☆ “This book is pretty good.”, “This book is really good, but this author is incredible and I feel like they could’ve done better”, “This is actually a five star book but I haven’t taken my dinner out of the microwave yet so I’m a little hangry.”

            ★★★☆☆ “All my friends thought it was cool but I can’t understand it with my pea brain”, “Meh.”, “This fantasy novel broke physics too many times.”

            ★★☆☆☆ “I hated it but I have scruples and won’t give one star.”, “I took off a star every time a female character was harmed to further the plot, but the story line was still good.”, “I managed to slog through this.”

            ★☆☆☆☆ “This book was ridiculously problematic. Seriously, they were more sympathetic to social issues in the 1960’s. I can’t believe this is published this year. The only reason I haven’t lit my copy on fire is because I believe in freedom of the press.”, “My friend Ann Miner told me ‘life is too short for bad books’. She was right. Thus, in her memory I will not be finishing this book.”, “Andrew Ne!derman, stop pretending to be VC Andrews.”

      You see that? The only place where it was about the author was when I didn’t feel like they had done their personal best… Or they were pretending to be an absolute queen who deserves to rest in peace without her name dragged through the mud. A rating on your book has very little to do with you.

            In example, I try to read blind.  I read Cursed Pirate Girl by Jeremy A. Bastion. I adored it! It was incredible! The art was breath taking! The storyline had me enraptured. But then I read the second one. It was also breath taking, enrapturing, and incredible… But maybe a little discombobulated. The illustrations were to die for! But then that cliff hanger… So I gave the first one five stars, and the second four. I gave The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern three stars. If you haven’t heard of that one I promise you’re about to. It’s extremely popular! It was good, but I’m not cool enough to get it. None of that was meant to be an attack on the author.

            I know a low rating can feel like a personal attack. In fact, one of my one star reviews is a personal attack. I told one of my former friends he was wrong to revenge porn his ex-girlfriend and told him I didn’t want to be around him. That was the result. But that’s neither here nor there! Sometimes, your book shaped baby just doesn’t speak to others the way it spoke to you. If you must read your ratings see what the common theme is. Maybe Grammerly isn’t the best line editor. Maybe you need to stop using sexual assault as a plot device. Maybe you’re marketing to the wrong audience! If you’re going to torment yourself, at least learn from it.

            As someone who used to message innocents who gave anything less than five stars (SORRY!) and got blocked multiple times for doing that (my sincerest apologies!) because I was hoping for more in depth feedback (really, it won’t happen again!) it’s best to let it go. Amy Tan doesn’t read her reviews. You and I aren’t Amy Tan, buckaroo, but just like people aren’t obligated to give us more in depth feedback. We’re not obligated to read reviews if they’re just going to do a number on our mental health.

            The best I can tell you is to gain a team of freelancers who are incredible at what they do, and pay them well to do it. That way, when someone does run up and slap that one star on your book, you can know you did your dang-est to make the finest book you could possibly make.

The Self Publishing Industry is Not A Bad Thing

            It’s no secret, I have made some deprecating remarks on self-publishing in the past. I don’t try to hide it, I’ve said what I’ve said. The industry has changed a lot since I started out in 2010. It’s incredible to see the rises and the falls of all the trends in how books are published. Self-publishing used to be janky. Like, it was literally some stranger you hardly knew from the internet with a printing press in their basement. Which, hey, if that’s what works for you, more power to ya! I know people who’ve done it! Now, largely Amazon, has turned self-publishing in to an easy to navigate, user friendly, industry, that gives you equal publicity to traditionally published authors right out of the gate. That’s incredible.

            The self-publishing industry has given voice to the voiceless. Women, people of color, members of the LGBT+ community, and those who fall under all three labels have often said it’s harder for them to get published, or as readers find books they actually want to read. Full disclosure, I would totally read a high fantasy novel with non-binary, butch, lesbian, warrior princesses who are not white. You see how edgy that sentence felt? That’s because books like that aren’t mainstream yet. Yes, even in the sphere of fantasy. Now because of self-publishing you can actually find books like that for sale online. Now because of self-publishing, larger presses (I’m talking Harper Collins) are actually looking at books like that. Now books like that are making their ways into libraries and getting in to the hands of people who need them.

            The self-publishing industry is breaking creative boundaries. You know what the self-publishing industry gave us? New adult fiction! Love it or hate it, having a new genre is cool as all heck! If it weren’t for people self-publishing books about college-age kids I wouldn’t have ever thought to say to myself “What if a 26 year old dentist finds out she’s a changeling?” and thus, The Tooth Fairy was born.

            One of the coolest things I’ve watched is tropes come over from fan-fiction, to the self-publishing industry, into the mainstream. Unfortunately most of my examples have to do with sex, and I am not comfortable with having that discussion on this blog.

            The self-publishing industry empowers authors. Self-published authors amaze me. To be perfectly honest with you, ISBNs are a little mysterious to me. Yes, I know they’re the 13 digit name for a book, like a social security number, but you have to buy them? Cancel them? Who da what now?  I don’t know everything (shocker!) and what I don’t know, self-published authors usually seem to out of necessity.

            I gotta be honest, I love talking marketing with them because that’s one of my quirky special interests. Particularly social media! I’ve nearly ruined Christmas by chattering about how Facebook algorithms work. I am resisting making a Parler account. Resist!

            But what’s not empowering about choosing who gets to do your cover art, your editing, your marketing (it could be me), and setting your own prices for books?! You’re in control every step of the way! And when you need or want to pull your books you can. I saw an author publish a book, realize everyone was out of work due to Covid-19, and then drop prices the lowest they could on Amazon! Tell me that’s not empowering!

            You can do well if you choose to do well. Off the top of my head Diary of an Oxygen Theif, The Princess Saves Herself in this One, and Fifty Shades of Grey, are all books that were originally self published but are now a big deal. Googling it now, I just learned Milk and Honey, one of my favorite books of poetry, started out self published! I am so glad artist Joss Hellman told me to go read it.

            Anyway, what I mean by “you can do well if you choose to” is this: If you choose to hire a copy editor, if you choose to invest in good cover art, if you choose to get your friends involved as beta and sensitivity readers, if you choose to learn what you can about marketing, if you choose to put in the work you can go far. I, Helen M. Pugsley, crusher of dreams will not promise you that you will go far. I’m saying you have a much better chance. At the very least, you will produce a quality book. Most likely, you will end up with a tiny, but ultra dedicated fandom.

            All in all, self-publishing as a whole is a good thing. But at the end of the day you have to do what’s right for you and your particular pieces of work. I don’t want to self-publish the Gishlan series. That is not my dream, it never was. I want to traditionally publish that. I would self-publish The Tooth Fairy, because I wrote it as a break from Gishlan, and I don’t feel like watering down some of the more explicit content for the sake of a publisher’s comfort. This is your life. Choose your own path. But, hating on the self-publishing industry is cancelled.