Freelance: Client Promise v. Reality

New and experienced freelancers alike fall for it over and over again. Writers, trainers, musicians, artists, quilters,  photographers, even chefs, hair stylists and interior designers fall for the desperate client offer: Help me now, fast and cheap, and I’ll reward you handsomely later, with a bigger, lucrative job. When the offer comes from a client you’ve worked with for a long time, it pushes your loyalty button. When the offer comes from a new client, it pushes the “I can help and be rewarded” button.

"THIS time it will work" (Image from

So I wrote the training program with the promise that I’d be offered the first chance to teach it every time it was offered. See? You already know what happened, although I didn’t figure it out till yesterday.

Before you reach for that juicy promise, do the math: the longer the time between promise and payoff, the less likely it will ever materialize.

The client actually means it when he makes the offer–that’s what desperation does on the client side–promise anything to get the work done. Once the client has the training program, music for the wedding, Beef Wellington, surprise party photos or new logo, the tide turns. The logo doesn’t spark sales, the song isn’t a big hit, the fiance is allergic to an ingredient in the Wellington, and the rest of the promise–to reward you later–vanishes faster than bacon at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.

I’ve been writing for decades and I fell for it again. I’d be OK if I thought I’d done it out of loyalty or shoulder-shrugging generosity rather than a cape-and-tights surge of desire to be a hero in a hopeless situation. The client promised, I jumped, and the promise didn’t come through. When I gently reminded the client of the promise, he became affronted–as if I were extorting him. “Things changed,” he started. (That’s the most common excuse.) “You didn’t do all the work, I asked other people, too,” although that didn’t change his promise to me. And then the other responsibility dodger,”My client changed the game, so you have to be flexible.” My real flexibility should have come three months earlier–I should have spun on my heel and run.

Bart Simpson has to write it all the time. . .

Yes, I should have turned down the job. Politely. Maybe simply by saying I was busy. Maybe I should have been bold and said, “I’ve done this too often before, and it doesn’t work out the way you intend and I hope.” But I didn’t. And I’m out more than I can afford to lose–I broke the first rule of investing.

So, the question is, what have you said to the client who dangles a promise in front of you, and you bit? What worked? What didn’t? I’ll be watching the comments.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and trainer with a soft heart and a head to match.

Mystery Box Project

The mystery box came with an cosmetic purchase. Brown corrugated cardboard, it held a bottle of aromatherapy spray. After I extracted the bottle from the box, I noticed the box had perforated corners that could be pushed in to change the shape of the box completely. I think the original purpose was to allow one box hold two different size bottles.

To me, once I pushed the corners in, the box took on a mysterious look–it had nooks and spaces–places to hold small books. Maybe a flip book, or one of those books made of triangles. Maybe an accordion book that has reverse folds on the pages.  But first there as a lot of work to be done.

Planning stage: sketches from my journal. Click on image for larger view.

The box itself needed to be transformed, covered. Cardboard has a certain rustic charm, but the corrugations were a little tired, and needed to be covered. I started by painting the entire box with a coat of gesso–the artist’s equivalent of spackle. Gesso is a thick white paint meant to be used as an undercoat. So far, that’s all that’s been done. I made a few sketches  in my journal to think through the possibilities. It’s helpful to think and draw at the same time. That’s the sketch, above.

In the next few days, I’ll transform the box and post the results here. I’m also making a video of the transformation. It’s my first video, so I’m not promising I’ll post it. If I can edit it into something decent, I will. Meanwhile, stay tune for the photos and words.

And if you have any suggestions on a theme or how I could transform it, well, that’s what the comments are for–let me know.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and coach who will turn anything into a journal.

Choosing a Niche, Growing Your Niche

During the last few days of coaching training, my group was told to choose a niche for our coaching practice. My colleagues began by picking up business journals and looking for likely clients.
I thought, “Why start defining and qualifying strangers, when I can look at the people already around me? I’m a writer and artist. At the time, I was working at a Washington D.C.-area company that provided writing and training for the government and the private sector. My specialty was marketing copywriting. On weekends, I would sell my artwork at art festivals. I hadn’t opened my own business yet.

M.C. Escher's "Infinite Circle."

I decided that a likely niche was to work with writers and artists. Helping them market their work as well as help them work regularly and deeply, making meaning from their work in addition to selling it.
I presented my niche idea to the Coaching Class, the senior instructor laughed and told me that artists don’t have money, and I should choose a smarter niche. He suggested I look for a “more reliable client.”

Here’s the tip I learned from that experience:
Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb at and not doing it.

Shortly after I submitted a query for an article to a magazine, and followed up when I didn’t hear from them. They told me their business writer was leaving and they were busy looking for a replacement, and that was a higher priority at the moment.

I offered to write the column till they found the writer they wanted.
The magazine told me they loved my writing but were afraid I wouldn’t last. They were afraid I wouldn’t have enough ideas.

Both of those incidents happened eight years ago. I’m still writing for the magazine, plus another one by the same publisher. And I’m thriving in my niche.
Here’s what I learned from that experience:
The other half of being smart is doing what you are already smart at.
Almost certainly you do not have to sit down and brainstorm you’re your niche is. You already know. You might be afraid of it, or you might not believe it, or you might not know how to make it work, but your niche is already in front of you. Your niche wants you to recognize it. Give it a break, let it show up.

Stare at the dot in the center of the circles. Move your head back and forth slowly and the circles will seem to turn. Attributed to Robert Pless.

I could have worked them all linearly, developing products or service lines for each. I decided that art doesn’t work in a linear way, so maybe I shouldn’t either.
So I put what I had into a circle.
My writing for the magazines reaches a lot of artists, so I asked that my byline include that I’m a coach.
At art festivals, I talked to a lot of artists, interviewing them for my articles. My articles sounded better for real-life experiences, and that gave me credibility as a writer and a coach.

I approached an art festival promoter to let me teach art marketing classes for half an hour before the show opened.  That was good for the promoter as it helped the artists earn more at the show and gave the promoter the reputation of helping artists.
It allowed me to get to know more people. I handed out lists of marketing tips and ran specialized workshops. The group grew. I added a coaching demo every now and then.
The tip in this part of the story:  Use your niche skills to feed clients into other things you do well.
When I stopped doing art festivals, I had a big hole in my own marketing plan.
So I looked around at what else I could do.  The obvious answer to me was to show people how to do what I knew—writing, marketing, and art.
I developed training programs in writing—and looked for another market I knew well. I’d spent 25 years working in corporations, so business became my next niche.  I developed training programs and went to people I already knew in some corporations—even if it had been years since I’d last seen them. I make those contacts through Social Networking.

Zen circle, made with a single brushstroke.

Because I know how corporations work, it seems like a natural to approach marketing managers, training departments, and human resource areas.
Now I have a training development niche in which I not only develop the programs, but run them, too. I’ve expanded what I offer to include team building, leadership and other topics that demand creativity.
Which brings me to the last tip:
The best way to develop a niche is to develop a circular pattern. Each thing you do well feeds clients into something else you do well.

You can have more than one niche, but they have to connect in some way. Linear development is exhausting and won’t bring in enough income to keep you going.

My latest venture is my book. It combines coaching and is a how-to book for people who want to art journal but don’t know how to draw.  It’s called Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning Making Art and North Light Books is publishing it in July.
What I learned from that step is: For every major new project you begin, you have to drop something else or hire someone to do it for you.

So let’s review:
1. Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb at and not doing it.
2. The other half is doing what you are already smart at.
3. Use your niche skills to feed clients into other things you do well.
4. Linear development is exhausting and won’t bring in enough income to keep you going.
5. You can develop all the niches you want, as long at they fit into a circular pattern of skill development.
6. Review your circular pattern at least twice a year to see what needs expansion and what can be eliminated. Don’t do one without the other. If you expand in one area, you can drop or shrink another. Most businesses that try to be everything to everyone die within a year.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and certified creativity coach. She also develops training programs in writing, soft skills and creative projects.

Collage Background

Backgrounds for your collages are all around–you can use ripped up magazines, paints, books, or. . .your own photographs printed on unusual papers or exaggerated in size. Train your eyes to see backgrounds, photograph them, and the world will fill up your journal.

rock wall with vineTake photographs to save the idea, and then print them on a variety of papers–photographic papers will give you a stiff, glossy surface.

Printing them on copy paper will give you a softer look, but be careful–ink jet ink will run with glue. Spray it with several light layers of fixative first.

Print them on Lazertran or transparency paper. Print them on heavier paper and paint ink over them.letter

Or just leave them alone and use them as the beautiful backgrounds they are.

From top to bottom, the images are:

1. Rock wall with a dried vine, taken at the Washington Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

2. Close up of a letter stained with tea and printed on Lazertran.

shadow on sidewalk

3. Close up of a sidewalk stained by grass fertilizer and very hard water, Mesa, AZ.

4. Close up of salt-stained staircase in Washington, D.C.salt-stained wall





Quinn McDonald is a collage artist and a certified creativity coach who teaches collage art and visual journaling. See her work at

Map Journal Page

Maps are shortcuts to stories. In a journal, they can tell the story of a trip, pin down a location, help a memory grow roots.

Last weekend, we took the motorcycles for a trip down to Tucson. On a map, it looked like desert for the whole back-road trip. That would have been enough, I love the desert landscape. But when I looked at some history of the area, I found great places with interesting stories.

A map help combines the two. I can remember the route and remember the places with interesting stories. Oh, and one more thing. I’m back on Michelle Ward’s Street Team, doing her Crusade challenges. This is Challenge 48.

The one thing I don’t care about on my maps is that they are not to scale. I can look that up, and since my maps are never to scale, I don’t expect them to be.

You don’t have to know how to illustrate, either. Simple sketching will do, and often an icon (the jail window) stands in for the real thing.

Quinn McDonald keeps a journal filled with maps. Her book Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art will be in stores in July, 2011.

Office-Supply Journal Folder

Didn’t want to take the whole big journal, but wanted to take some papers to journal on. Looking around my office, I found a red file folder. I don’t like the color of red file folders, so I always have extras. But file folders are meant to hold papers, so the purpose was set.

I opened the file folder, and then folded each side to the center line. I left the tabs intact.

Then I folded up the long bottom side. I made the fold about two inches high. Now I had an accordion fold page holder. Except it was file-folder red. I used three colors of acrylic paint and a sponge, and sponged over the red. Using Titan Buff, Aztec Gold and Burnt Sienna, I created an irregular color pattern all over the folder.

You can display the cards or hide them while you are working on them.

As paper, I decided to take long postcards to write on. It created a completely different approach to journaling–postcards, not just from a location, but from the other side of my brain. Using the ephemera I found along the way, I made several postcards and sent them to me back at home, a reminder where I had been when I arrived back.

Folder held closed with a duct-tape belt.

The folder needed something to hold it closed, but easy to open. For that I reached to my old favorite—duct tape. The directions are below.

It’s a simple, useful, easy-to-make journal that you can make if you are in your office. It’s handy, holds a variety of papers, and looks pretty good–for a red file folder.

Tutorial for duct-tape belt for your journal

In the final step, adjust the size of the belt to fit loosely and comfortably around the journal.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and journal artist whose book will be out in July.

Books as Art

When a plumber or electrician comes into my house, they often stop in their tracks in the living room. They stare at the 20-year-old TV that takes up the center portion of a big book case. The book case has deep shelves, and on each shelf is two rows of books. The former dining area is my office. My desk is surrounded by a row of book cases. Almost always the repair person asks, “Are you, a librarian?” or “Have you read all of these?” No, and yes.

I love books. I decorate with them, I make them, I use old ones and re-purpose them. Books are so much more than reading material to me. They are art.

(c) Vladimir Kush's Atlas of Wander

(c) Vladimir Kush's Atlas of Wander

Vadimir Kush is a painter. His remarkable transformation of a tree into a book is Atlas of Wander. (Shown small, at left). It represents both the power of books, as well as the tree from which most of their paper comes from. To say nothing of the transformative nature of reading.

At the Website Dark Roasted Blend, there’s a two-parter about altered books. Part I was interesting; I was especially interested in the code-like writing in one of the books. In Part II, she shares some amazing images of cut-up, re-shaped books. If you cringe at altering books, this site will amaze you. Jacqueline Rush Lee is turning books back into magical apparations, I swear!

Cara Barer poses books to look like new life, then photograph them so we can enjoy that new life. These airy, curvey, sculptures make you glad you own books.

Because, quite frankly, there are times I feel like the last person on earth to love books for their own sake.

Georgia Russel is an artist who uses a scalpel the way most artists wield a brush or pencil. Her constructions take books, photographs

Le Voleur de Souffle, (c) Georgia Russell

Le Voleur de Souffle, (c) Georgia Russell

and musical scores, as well as maps and currency, and makes them into something so different, so structurally aesthetic, it takes your breath away. To the right is Le Voleur de Souffle, (Translation: The Thief of Breath), a cut book jacket in an acrylic case, 14 x 9 x 4 inches.

There are days I hate the whole world of technology and all the evil things it has spawned that don’t work, disappear, have to be rebooted. Today was not one of those days. Today, technology brought the world of art books into my grasp, and I am grateful.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. Her book, Raw Art Journaling will be published in July of 2011.