Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Schedules And How To Keep Them

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Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Schedules and How to Keep Them

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I often work with start-up publishers.  I like their enthusiasm and their vision.  After all, I once co-owned a start-up publishing company as well.

However, because I co-owned such a company, I keep a careful eye on the start-ups.  I make sure that I can get out of my contracts easily if need be.

When I see potential trouble in a start-up, I let the owner know.  If the trouble doesn’t get fixed, I do an assessment: can I live with that trouble? Will that trouble affect my work? If the answer to both of those questions is no, then I stay.  If it’s yes, I try once more to solve the problems, and if that fails, I leave.

Over the years, I have left primarily due to lack of payment.  Start-ups run through their money quicker than anyone else.  Several years ago, one start-up didn’t have enough cash to publish an anthology I had contributed to.  The owner sent a letter, saying payment would come six months after publication, which I found unacceptable.  The owner, in other words, got all the benefit, and if that owner failed to pay, I would lose first publication rights to my story and never get compensated for them.

Besides, the owner violated the contract.  I informed the owner of this, asked for my payment (which, supposedly on acceptance, was now overdue), and when the owner reiterated that no payment would come until six months after publication, I pulled the story.  The book was already in production.  That decision cost the publisher five times more than it would have if the publisher had simply honored our contract.

Such problems are common with start-ups.  I’ve had to deal with at least one of these issues per year.  The handwriting is always on the wall at that point.  If the start-up delays payment, the start-up has money troubles.  If a start-up has money troubles, and continues to deny them, the start-up will—and I mean will—go out of business.

In this particular case, the start-up I referred to was gone one year later.  Half the authors in that anthology got their post-publication payment. The other half did not.  The authors in the next anthology never did get paid.

Money issues are a place where problems become visible.  Anyone who pays attention can see that handwriting on the wall.

But some time back, I had a different issue with a start-up.  It had to do with scheduling.

This start-up—a small press—contracted to reissue several of my books.  The editor who contacted me was one of the most reputable in the business.  The press’s owner had had a few business failures in the past, but I see that as a plus.  The owner had managed to get start-up capital despite those failures.  The owner also was a bright person who learned from mistakes.  I think failure is a good thing, if a person can learn from it, so I did not hold the failures against the owner, but I made a wary note of them, just like I would have if there were hints of money troubles.

This company had no money troubles.  It was drowning in capital and had great plans for various projects.  But I had a lot of trouble finding out when my books would be published.  My editor couldn’t get answers on that issue as well. And no one provided deadlines.  I thought that strange.

Then came some personnel changes.  My editor left. The new editor never answered e-mail.  Neither did the owner.  And I had some pretty serious questions that needed answering.  Most importantly, I needed to know the publishing schedule because some of the books being reissued had co-publishing arrangements.

After months of no response from the publisher, I finally sent a registered letter canceling the contracts.  I took longer than usual in doing so, simply because the problems seemed so unusual.  But I was complaining to Dean one afternoon and I heard myself say this, “If I’m having trouble getting responses now before publication, when a publisher is excited about a project, imagine how hard it’ll be to get a response if there’s an actual problem, like a delayed payment or a botched cover.”

That sentence decided me.  I couldn’t continue to do business with this publisher.

Eventually, the owner responded to my registered letter.  The owner demanded to know why I hadn’t e-mailed.  I sent copies of all my correspondence.  We had several backs and forths, and things seemed to be getting resolved.  Then I reiterated that I had needed the publishing schedule.

The owner asked me why I needed a schedule.  I mentioned the co-publishing agreements, and then I stated what seemed obvious to me: All publishers had a schedule.  This publisher just needed to share theirs with their authors.

“But,” the publisher wrote back, “none of my companies have ever had any schedule, and we’ve done fine.”

Suddenly, all became clear.  The previous businesses hadn’t failed from undercapitalization or from overextending. They had all failed because the owner had never ever had a schedule, and was now repeating the same mistake.

Needless to say, I stood by my cancellation, which turned out to be a good decision.

The poor business owner never did understand what had gone wrong, with me and with others.  The company, while initially on solid financial footing, started having trouble.  The troubles had nothing to do with the finances and everything to do with the lack of a schedule.

You see, without a schedule, other businesses can’t work with yours.  If you’re a publisher, bookstores won’t know when to order your books – and won’t be able to depend on them to arrive on time.  If you’re a reader, you won’t know when a book becomes available.  I got five novels this week, all of which I had pre-ordered, all of them I have been looking forward to for months and in one case, years.  The books arrived on time, and I’m a happy, if overwhelmed, fan.

If you’re a busy author, like me, you need the schedule so that you can meet your deadlines. If you’re familiar with publishing, you can also see when things start going awry.  Many years ago, an inexperienced editor at a major publishing house forgot to put my book into production.  I noticed when the copy edit was late, then when the proof didn’t show.  I—and several other authors—had our agents find out what was going on. What was going on was that this editor was very incompetent, and once writers and their representatives started complaining, this editor got fired.  My book was delayed for a year because someone hadn’t met the schedule.  (You’ll see more about this in June, when the book gets re-released from a new publisher.  I’ll tell the whole story then.)

A solid publishing schedule gives the author all kinds of flexibility, and when an author is multipublished, keeps books spaced a proper length apart (or not, if we’re jamming something for attention).

Every publisher I’ve ever worked with, until this start-up, knew that a schedule was important.  Not all publishers—particularly the new ones—could keep to the schedule, but they at least tried.

Recently, I had the happy surprise of encountering an extremely organized and scheduled publisher.  I turned in a novel and got an e-mail from the managing editor, with all the important dates—when the revision (if there were any) was due, when the copy edits needed to be finished, when the proofs needed to be done, and when the book would be available for pre-order.  I about fell off my chair with delight and surprise.

Then I picked myself up, compared this publication schedule to my personal schedule, and informed the company of a possible problem—I would be traveling for weeks when one of the due dates hit.  We adjusted everything within the hour, and the managing editor told me this was why the company sent out the in-house schedule, so they could adjust it to accommodate everyone concerned.

Wow! Such professionalism.  In twenty-plus years of publishing and being published, I had never encountered such specificity before.  I loved it, and I confess, I feel spoiled now.

Now you know why schedules are so important to publishing.  But what about other businesses? Do they need schedules?

Of course they do.  Everyone needs a schedule.  If you don’t have a schedule, you end up like that poor start-up above.  After I left, I continued to pay attention, and I watched that poor business owner run from one fire to another, always trying to put them out.  Detail after detail got lost as problems blew up in the owner’s face.

Schedules provide structure.  Sometimes that structure is as simple as business hours posted on the door of a retail store.  Customers know when the store is open, and the owner knows when she needs to be there. But the store needs to keep to the posted hours. After a few tries, customers won’t return to a store that’s closed during its posted hours.

The structure provides a framework for the entire business.  It’s up to the owner of the business to enforce that structure. For example, I recently heard of two different firings that occurred in our small town.

In the first, the employee showed up hours late for work, without calling.  The employee did this repeatedly.  After a year of this (!), the employee got fired.  Was this the employee’s fault? Of course.  But it was also the business owner’s fault for not respecting the schedule and the structure it provided.

Had I been the owner, and had my employee been that late without cause (a trip to the hospital; a car breakdown outside of cell phone range), I might have fired the employee on the spot.  If the employee was particularly good, I might have issued a warning, and fired the employee the second time the employee was hours late.  But I certainly wouldn’t have waited a year.  A year meant that the schedule had no meaning.  Ignoring the problem gave the employee tacit permission to misbehave.

Another local business fired one of its three managers for failing to follow a different schedule. The manager would occasionally skip the night deposit, taking care of it the next time the manager drove past the bank.  Which meant that the books for the business were off considerably.  It also meant that the manager had an entire day’s receipts just riding around in the car.  The manager was a nice person, without guile.  It was just a case of being clueless.  In this instance, the manager was clueless exactly twice: the first time, the manager got a warning; the second time, the manager got fired.

Schedules are schedules are schedules.

So…

You work for yourself. Why do you need a schedule?

Go back to the posts on discipline, deadlines, and time. You need a schedule to help you manage your time, to acquire discipline, and to meet deadlines.  Once you become adept at your business, you will know how many hours something will take.  You’ll be able to schedule your time very well.  You’ll know in advance when you’re overextended or underextended.  You’ll know when you have to work extra hard and when you have some leisure time.  You’ll know when you need to hire help, even in the short term.

You’ll also be able to compare your schedule with that of the people you do business with and come up with a joint schedule that suits you both. That’s what I did with the publishing house that gave me its internal schedule, and what I tried to do with the start-up I had to leave.  Because I’m very scheduled and I’ve been doing this a long time, I knew that my March, April, and May would be crammed.  (They were.)  I know that I need to work extra hard in June, July, and August because I’m going to lose two, maybe three weeks of work in September due to two trips (and all the planning that goes into such trips).  I also know I’ll be tired when I return, so I have to schedule lightly.

What level of schedule do you need? That’s determined by your business.  Most businesses need some kind of external schedule, marked by deadlines and contracts.  But most employees—including you—need an internal schedule.

Just because a retail store is open from 10 to 5 doesn’t mean the owner should spend the entire time behind the counter twiddling her thumbs as she waits for customers.  She needs to have a schedule to change the inventory, to make bank deposits, to clean the store itself.  She might put inventory up on e-Bay, which has its own scheduling demands, and she might have external deadlines imposed by the state and municipality in the form of tax documents.  Even something with a seeming simple schedule might be a lot more complex when viewed from the inside.

Other businesses work off appointment schedules or on construction schedules.  Some have deadlines.  Others have seasonal demands.  All of them valid.  All of them create external schedules.

But external schedules mean nothing if you don’t have your internal schedule under control.  How do you do that?

You work backwards.

You’ve done this your whole life.  Think of it this way.  When you went to your day job, you had a schedule.  Let’s say you had to be there at nine a.m., and unlike the employee mentioned above, you couldn’t be five minutes late without a phone call and a damn good reason.

So you figured the time in your head.  You had a thirty minute commute that could stretch to forty-five on bad days.  You had to drop the kids off at school, which was fifteen minutes out of your way.

That meant you had to leave the house no later than eight o’clock.  It took you an hour to get ready, counting shower and breakfast.  If you lived on your own, you could get up at seven and make it. But you didn’t.  It always took an extra fifteen minutes to get the kids out of bed. Plus, you always hit the snooze button twice.  No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t break yourself of that habit.

So, to be safe, you set your alarm for six in the morning, knowing you had built leeway into your schedule.  You could oversleep an hour and still get to work on time.  Maybe with practice, or as the kids got older, you could shave a half an hour off of that, and get up at six-thirty.  Or maybe you convinced your spouse to take the kids. Then you could get up at seven.

We all make those kinds of decisions, every day.  Now you have to make them for your business.  Let’s say yours is a deadline-oriented business, like mine.  The external deadline is in stone (remember the deadline section).  So you don’t want to miss it, not even if you get the flu or you lose an employee or your computer dies.

So you move the hard deadline a month earlier or two months earlier, and shot for the new date.  Then you count backwards.

In your backwards count, you must be realistic. Let’s go back to the getting to work metaphor.  A friend of mine once told me he lived ten minutes away from work when there was no traffic. The problem was the commute took thirty minutes when the traffic was going speed limit.  If there was a jam, his commute took an hour.  (This was why, he told me later, he decided to walk—he actually got there quicker.  But that’s a digression about a health decision, as well as a scheduling decision.)

If you worked at top speed, you could probably get the project done in a month.  But top speed isn’t always possible.  In fact, top speed usually leads to mistakes and burnout.

At your slowest speed, barely working at all, you could get the project done in four months.  But that would be dull and probably counterproductive, since most of us who work on deadline get paid as the deadlines get met.

So how to find a happy medium?

First, buy a calendar.  Write in holidays, days off, and vacation days.  If you have chronic health problems, like I do, plan for those as well.  (I usually plan for an unscheduled week off somewhere in a quarterly schedule.)  Put in personal time, like parent-teacher conferences, the kids’ soccer matches, dinner and a date with your spouse.  Those days are days away from work.

Then figure you can finish the project in 75 days of steady work (add the one month at top speed to the four months of slow speed and divide by two.  That gives you 2.5 months or 75 days).  Count backwards from your early deadline, skipping the days off and half days.  Circle that date on your calendar.  That’s your drop-dead start date.  Do not miss it.  You might finish the project earlier than your early deadline.  Good for you.  You’ve just become reliable.

But you might have to struggle to meet your early deadline because—guess what? Life happens.  If you’re struggling, you have some time built into your schedule. But your drop-dead deadline is just that.  Something you cannot miss.

Play whatever mind games it takes to make your schedule work.  And write it all down.  The early deadline, the start date, the time you think it will take to finish.

Because you might have to juggle everything if another deadline gets into the mix.

This happened to me in April.  I agreed to write a story that would take quite a bit of research.  The editor implied that the story would be due in June. When I asked for his actual deadline, he gave me May 15.  I looked at that, looked at my already-crammed schedule, and realized that I would have to work late into the night to get it done. But I could do it, research and all.  It meant that I had to shave some things out of my schedule—mostly, following the news (which I do obsessively).  No morning newspaper.  No evening newscasts.  No peeking at news websites.  I took to listening to NPR on my iPhone because the app let me download and listen in the middle of the night if need be, or when I was taking out the garbage or feeding the cats.

I adjusted a few other deadlines closer to their drop-deads than I liked.  And I didn’t write ahead on the Freelancer’s Guide, for instance, although I planned to.  But I managed to make it work.  I got it all done, and done well.

I would have had to turn the editor down, though, if I hadn’t already had extra time built into my schedule.  And I would have lost some significant revenue.

Do what it takes to set up your internal schedule.  I use calendars and computerized reminders.  I also maintain a daily, weekly, and monthly to-do list.  I frequently look ahead at my list, so that I make sure I’m on track.

I work on a project basis—sometimes working 12-hour days, sometimes working 6-hour days.  (Occasionally slacking with 4-hour days).  Others work on an hourly schedule. They sit at their desks from 9 to 5 just like they would if they had a day job.  Or they give themselves a certain number of tasks to complete each hour.

That minute level of scheduling is an individual thing.  But there are two things that  must be absolute:

1. Your schedule must help you complete work.  That sounds so elementary.  But if I had an hourly schedule, I’d subvert it and get nothing done.  I learned that a long time ago.  However, I love to finish things, so I try to finish as many projects as possible in the space of a year.  I also like to challenge myself, so I make sure most of the projects are outside my comfort zone.

Long ago, I defined the things I could not cut from my schedule.  An hour for meals.  (Half an hour for lunch, if need be.) Reading. Exercise. A good night’s sleep.  An hour of TV per night.  I could jettison those things, but not for long.  Those were absolutes.  And if I skipped some, like exercise and sleep, I wouldn’t be effective at my job.  So there are times I eat at my desk, but I skip an hour of TV before I skip my daily run.  (Dammit.)  You have things like that too. Be honest about them. That’ll help you keep your schedule and meet your deadlines.

The other absolute is this:

2. You must enforce your schedule.  Just like that business owner who let his employee arrive late every day for a year (!), you risk losing control of your business if you think of a schedule as a suggestion rather than something written in stone.  You’ll run from crisis to crisis like that publisher I mentioned, instead of completing good and productive work on time.

Not to mention the fact that if you use a schedule as a suggestion instead of a structure, you’ll be in a constant state of panic. Everyone from your suppliers to your creditors to your clients will be angry with you for neglecting one or another detail.  Your business will suffer, even if you thrive on conflict.  And, ultimately, you’ll end up hating the job you created for yourself.

A schedule is as essential to a business as the skeleton is to the human body.  Often outsiders can’t see the schedule—or just get hints of it—but they’d know if it were missing.  A human being would be a packet of flesh and fluids without the skeleton.  A business is just a bunch of good intentions without the structure provided by a schedule.

Figure out your schedule—both internal and external.  Refine it as time goes on.  Figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.  Then implement it.  Make sure that the people around you know about the schedule and respect it.  You have to respect it as well. It’s the thing that will make or break your business.

Why do you think I haven’t missed in sixty-one weeks of the Freelancer’s Guide? Schedule, my friends.  Some weeks, it was the only thing that got me to the computer—despite being tired or cranky or just plain reluctant.  It got me to the computer tonight, even though I would much rather be working on a new project that has me all excited or reading those five new pre-ordered books.

I have time for both of those things in my schedule.  And I can get to them now, since this week’s Guide is done.



“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Schedules And How To Keep Them” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

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12 Comments

  1. It seems to me scheduling and budgeting go hand in hand. A schedule is also a time budget, right? To make a schedule you need to know when things are due and how much time they cost. Building time into the schedule is like saving money for an emergency. Sounds like a budget to me.

    I’m terrible at sticking to schedules because I’m easily distracted. I’d much rather read about new technology or build a widget than write a weekly report. Maybe if I try budgeting time for reading or building, and I know I won’t have to wait indefinitely to get to it, it’ll be easier to stick to doing the report. It’s worth a shot.

    Thanks for all the advice. You’ve been a great source of knowledge and encouragement.

    (No donate button this week?)

    Reply
    • Thanks, Dave. I think that’s an excellent point. It is time budgeting. And just like regular budgeting, the better you get at it, the better you control your time–and your business.

      Thanks for the reminder on the donate button as well. No amount of scheduling can prevent the occasional airheadedness–at least for me. :-)

      Reply
  2. Very nice post! I’ve heard so many writers say their book will be done ‘when ever’. And then it never gets done. Or finished year or decades later. That would drive me nuts.

    I love scheduling writing projects. I might not always hit the target (have a chronic health problem, too) but it does keep me moving forward and accountable. Of course it has the added side-bonus of completed projects. I also find that hitting the milestones in a big project schedule gives a sense of completion and satisfaction. Of a job well done. :)

    Reply
    • Exactly. It feels good to finish things, I think. I love crossing stuff off my to-do list. :-)

      Reply
  3. I’m a pretty lazy writer, so I use tricks to keep to a loose schedule (not quite like the calendar tricks, though I do use a calendar too). My favorite is to mark down three goals for the week. I’ve found that I tend to finish two (where when I marked down only one or two, I often didn’t finish).

    I’ve found a schedule can also be really useful for getting the “but you don’t have a day job” people to leave me alone and let me work, as well. Keeping a basic schedule lets me train the people around me that I do actually have things to do despite being home all day :)

    Reply
    • Good point. Sometimes you can show them the schedule and they’ll realize that you’re working as well. I like your three goals method. Nice.

      Reply
  4. When I reread this one sometime today, I will be going through it carefully. My hard working discipline got knocked apart for a whole lot of reasons, and this post helps me question a lot of them. I love how this Guide makes me question things I’ve never questioned before. :)

    Reply
    • I’m glad it helps, Ryan. I think it’s pretty normal to reassess our work methods, trying to find what works now as opposed to what worked last week. Just so long as you keep doing the work. Somehow.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for this post, Kris. It’s easy for me to get sucked into massive to-do lists instead of taking the time to set aside certain repeated tasks to do on a scheduled basis so they’re out of one’s working memory, so to speak, and letting habit work for me.

    Do you have any specific programs or calendars you like in particular? The problem with computer-only ones are that I’m not always at my computer, and my phone calendar is so time-consuming to sync (no, I don’t have an iphone, lol) with my computer and analog calendars that I usually fall back on a hodgepodge of analog and phone reminders, so I’d love to find an easy to use, easy to update, easy to sync, available anytime/anywhere scheduler.

    Reply
    • I use my hardcopy calendar–a desktop version bound in leather, no less–for everything. Then I use iCal on my Mac. I’ve used it for years. It has a calendar function and a to-do function with reminders. I also use an office reminder system on my laptop, so I have alarms going off on all systems when something is due. And now I can add a reminder in my e-mail program, so I do that as well. Hope that helps.

      Reply
  6. Sam Lee: I used a Franklin (now Franklin Covey) Planner for a number of years. It came closer to getting me to do things on time than any other method since I moved out of my parents’ house. It helps a lot to follow their method for recording, prioritizing, and reviewing things you’ve written down. (My original starter set came with an audio training tape – very helpful.) It takes a while to build the habit of writing things down and then reviewing each day’s tasks, but it does work if you keep up with it. Day-timer is a popular brand of planner & calendar as well. I’ve never used it but my father did.

    Whatever method you use – paper, software, or dry-erase markers on your refrigerator door, you need to develop the discipline to write things down and refer back to them. Once you do have that, the product you use doesn’t matter quite so much.

    Something to consider for your situation: a software or online calendar and your phone. At the start of every day review your tasks and enter the day’s appointments as reminders into your phone. Keep a notebook or use the notepad function of your phone (even the voice memo feature if you have it) to make notes of new tasks and appointments through the day, then at the end of the day enter them into your software calendar. I use Google Calendar because it’s accessible anyplace you can get an internet connection. But even a paper master calendar will work; just make sure everything get written onto it.

    Reply
  7. Thanks, Kris and DaveH! I think I’ll get a paper calendar and write everything down in it and chain it to myself, and back it up with online or phone calendars when I can.

    Reply

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