August 4th, 2011

Songs for The Big Dream

The Big Dream has music in it, but no lyrics. Music is ubiquitous in our culture–with the advent of iPods, less and less of our lives is unsoundtracked, and if you’re going to write real life, you need at least some ambient music popping up sometime. When I wrote Once, there were occasional snatches of whatever the characters were listening to. When I was finished, someone told me that you can’t use song lyrics, even just a few, even if they’re diegetic, even for atmosphere, without paying the artist who wrote them, and the licensing company and whatever-expensive-nightmare.

So I went through the whole book and took out all the direct quotations. I left some vague references and titles in–surely they can’t sue for that, and I guess most readers would be at least slightly familiar with the sorts of music I was writing about, so they’d be able to tune in inside their brains. And it’s not as if music is a huge aspect of my work–it’s just there, a part of things, a thread in the fabric… It was just frustrating, is all, to have to leave things out, even little things.

But since I found out the rules, I’ve been writing with them in mind. In Road Trips, when I wanted to show a character flipping through the radio stations and hearing a little snatch of rap, I wrote the lyrics myself (the joke was how bad it was, so it was ok that I that; I’m not planning an alternative career as a rap lyricist). And in *The Big Dream* I found other ways of describing music besides direct quotations. Sometimes it works better than others, but I think I was largely successful in creating the impression of certain music without using the lyrics. Again, this is a really small part of the book, but I worked hard on it.

Except…somehow I didn’t think all these rules applied to epigraphs. I have no idea why I believed this–probably just because I wanted to, as none of the fair use exceptions of study, review, criticism, etc. applied. I just found this really really perfect epigraph for TBD, and I wanted it and I couldn’t write my way around it–an epigraph is a direct quotation and only that.

So I’ve come to my senses, looked into the matter further, and finally deleted the epigraph. I am sad, because the song and the quotation I picked said the perfect thing, I felt, to introduce the book. So I’ll write this post, I figure, reviewing and critiquing all the music that meant a lot to me and the process of writing TBD, and then I’ll have an excuse to include the quotation here–not in the book, where I feel it belongs, but at least somewhere where people can read it and make the connection. And there’s actually a lot of other music to give credit to, here. I think a lot of writers have music they keep in mind as they write or think about their work, whether or not it’s on in the room where we’re actually tapping at the keys–see Dani Couture’s playlists series or Large Heart Boy’s Book Notes. So it’s a proud tradition of us song-listing authors that I join now–onwards.

Believe it or not, I had never ever heard Dolly Parton’s working-girl classic 9 to 5 until less than a year ago, when my friend K played a dance mix of it in the aerobics class she teaches. True! I don’t generally like the “they let you dream just to watch’em shatter” type of song–too reductive, too whingy. But this song is *very* catch, great for aerobics, and it has two great lines: “there’s a better life and you think about it / dontcha?” and “in the same boat with a lot of your friends / waiting for the day your ship will come in / the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll you away.” Have *you* heard a better extended metaphor in a pop-song? A nice bit of solidarity, too! And I like “pour myself a cup of ambition,” too. Someday, I may write a story called, “A Cup of Ambition”–or is that not fair use? Oh, probably not. Sigh. (Query: I’ve still not seen the movie nor the stage show; should I?)

My background in songs about work is, well, work songs. I’m from that sort of family. So I was pleased to find a collection of our old favourites in Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. A bit more modern than the original Seeger, and also easier to find on CD (oh, sigh, sacrilege), this album is delightful. I certainly realize that a lot of these songs are about work done by slaves, and that it’s grossly offensive to align office work with that history. I don’t do so–I just like songs about work in any form. My favourites are “Jacob’s Ladder,” (that’s actually a really wonderful video there, which I hadn’t seen before now), for the incredible line, “Every new rock just makes us stronger,”  and “John Henry”, about the strongest man in the world. But no kidding, there’s everybody else and then there is Mr. Seeger–a singer for us all.

I’m a literalist, and I always felt that The New Pornographers’ The Crash Year is actually about a market crash–no idea if that’s true or not, although the album being released in 2010 would indicates so, as do lines like “you’re ruined like the rest of us” and “oh my child you’re not safe here.” And there’s a whistle-chorus!

You know you’re a serious Simon and Garfunkel fan when you are into the B sides–the tracks with a horn section, and more ribaldry, less tender reflection. One of my favourite all-time S&G works is Keep the Customer Satisfied. This is essentially a barstool plaint by a travelling salesman, exuberantly sung even when the lyrics are, “And I’m sooo tired / I’m oh-oh-oh so tired/I’m just trying to keep the customer satisfied.” You just don’t hear that line in rock’n'roll very often, and it makes me feel like these guys really know what it’s like to have a not-too-great job–though, as far as I know, they mainly didn’t. I mean, quirky musical icon isn’t a bad gig, right?

Of course, I like lots of music by folks who don’t work at job-jobs or write about them. In fact, I spent most of my time while writing this book listening to music by Vampire Weekend and The National, with a little Neil Diamond and Arcade Fire thrown in. And none of those artists give the impression of having done their time in the salt mine, but that’s ok–I really don’t theme my life by what I’m writing, I just shape it for posts like this.

And there’s Weezer. Silly, irreverent, possibly outdated Weezer, whose music is mainly about flirting and being awkward at parties–not that isn’t awesome, because it totally is. But sometimes, especially this one time, they manage to get right at the heart of things, and write the line that encapsulates not only my book but a chunk of my life’s philosophy. It was in the song Keep Fishin’ (yes, it’s the video with the Muppets–watch it if you haven’t, it’s brilliant). Note that throughout this post I have offered an evaluative judgement on all directly quoted material–it’s criticism, people, and therefore fair use. That *wonderful* line, which really should be my epigraph–fie on the greedy music industry and their selfish need to keep all their good lines for themselves, is:

You’ll never do
The things you want
If you don’t move
And get a job

June 3rd, 2011

Professional Interview #8: Aaron, Space Management Specialist

I haven’t done a Professional Interview in a while. Originally, I was doing the series as background for The Big Dream–not research, but to have a sense of the wildly varying specificities of working life. That’s all done now, and TBD is in page proofs (which, owing to a strong gust of wind while I wasn’t paying attention, are currently all over my dining room floor. I’m gathering strength to go pick them up and sort them), hence the gap.

This new interview is a bit different in that it’s specifically focussed on a job that a character I’m writing about (spoiler!) actually has. I really like to get the details right, and space management is not a field I have detailed knowledge of, so Aaron kindly agreed to fill me in. I find this stuff so interesting, so I thought I’d share it here in case you do too! Thanks, Aaron–you do cool work!

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Q: What is your official job title? What is your official job description?

A: My official job title is “Senior Space Management Specialist”. The term “Merchandising Analyst” no longer forms a part of my job title but it is implied – at least it is where I work.

I don’t really know what my “official” job description is. I’m sure I have the offer letter for it somewhere; I just can’t seem to find it. I’ll sum it up as best I can:

I report to the Manager of Merchandising Services. Technically, no one actually reports to me. The other Space Management Clerks might report to me on a task-by-task basis, but generally only if it is a task or project that I am directly in charge of. I am not their supervisor.

I’m responsible for creating and updating planograms that will help grow sales in our stores. To do that, I’m responsible for running sales, gathering information and presenting it so that it will help me and the Category Manager of that planogram determine how we can get the best results out of the planogram.

I’m responsible for helping maintain our database of section sizes by store, which help us determine which versions of each planogram need to be built.

I’m responsible for various reporting duties that include (but are not limited to) many types of sales reports, both on a regularly-scheduled basis and on a by-request basis.

As Senior Space Management Specialist, I act as the principle point of contact between the Space Management department and the Front Store Manager of any new stores and renovating stores while they are setting the store up prior to opening/re-opening.

I also act as the principle point of contact between other departments in the office and the Space Management team. I help to ensure that they are not tied up with frivolous requests that take away from more important ones.

Working knowledge of our space-planning software (or other space-planning software), Microsoft Office (Access, Excel, Outlook, Word), our stores’ POS software and our warehouse inventory software would all be considered assets (particularly the store POS) but not required.

Experience as a Merchandiser would also be considered an asset, but not a pre-requisite.

Q: What do you actually do in a typical day? (If your cycles are longer than one day, a typical week?)

A: The work cycles involved in creating planograms are not only longer than a day; they’re longer than a week too. As a result, I usually have several planograms in progress at any one time, at various stages of their cycle.

The cycle of planogram creation generally follows a pattern, if not an exact timeline. Too many variables exist to map it out precisely but in general, it happens in the following order:

1) Sales reports are run for the existing planogram. This will not only include the items that are present in the largest version of the existing planogram, but any other items in our listings database that could theoretically be added to the section. For example: Many items are listed for in-and-out promotions that don’t form a part of the planogram but, depending on their performance in the market, might warrant being added to the planogram.

This will include not only our own POS sales, but information from the market in general. We will also examine which items from the existing planogram have since been discontinued by their manufacturer/distributor, which represent known holes that need to be filled. That’s not to say that other items which are still available won’t also be removed to make room for newer and/or better-performing items, but those decisions come later.

This information is all put together in a package that is sent to the Category Manager for him/her to examine. The Category Manager will use this data, and take into account any presentations from sales representatives (aka. “Reps”) of companies trying to sell our C.M.s on carrying their products, to come up with a strategy that they wish to employ when we design the new planograms. I will have made some recommendations based on the data that I have, but ultimately the decisions are in the hands of the C.M.s.

2) When the Category Manager has had a chance to review the data, we will typically meet and discuss where we go from there. This might or might not involve working up a test planogram right there. If the C.M. already has all of the new product samples that we need and they were given to me in advance (to have their dimensions measured for input into the software’s product library) we could work up a test. If not, we’ll use the meeting to determine which products the C.M. wants to add and which ones to drop. We’ll also get a basic plan down for how we want to approach the build.

The C.M. will then acquire the necessary samples so that a test planogram can be worked up when the samples have arrived.

3) Samples are acquired and their dimensions measured. A test planogram is created. This is usually most common version among all of our stores (also typically the largest). This is done to figure out which products we can actually fit in the planogram, and therefore which ones the Category Manager has to get listed.

4) The test planogram is sent to a store in the city. They will order in any new products and a time will be set for me to go and set up the test planogram.

This is done because, as useful as computers are, we believe it is important to make sure that the physical results match what we see on the screen and that there aren’t any unforeseen difficulties. (A good example would be a product that has changed its packaging and though the amount of product in the package is the same, the physical dimensions of the product are not what they were when we measured them before. Perhaps the package decreased in height but increased in width. This will affect how many products we can fit on the shelf.) If we don’t test the planogram, we might not catch such problems beforehand and will send out a planogram to our stores that doesn’t work and then the Category Manager will get angry emails and phone calls from stores trying to figure out how it is supposed to work.

Usually we test the only one version of the planogram; the largest and most common one in our stores. Our stores are not cookie-cutter designs and can vary in size quite a bit. This will affect how many different sections they can carry and what sizes those sections will be. If the most common planogram size is not the largest, we will probably test the most common one instead. In some situations, we might test both the largest and the most common planogram (in different stores), particularly if we expect the largest to become a more commonly seen version as we move forward with renovations and new stores.

The test planogram is set up and adjustments are made. If the store is able to order all of the products in the planogram now (I’ll have brought samples for testing purposes if not) then the planogram will be left up for the store. Otherwise, it will be returned to its original state.

5) The remaining versions of the planogram are built. The Category Manager views them and asks for any changes. Changes are made until all versions are approved.

6) Planograms are launched to the stores.

The Merchandising Analyst side of my job operates with more regularity. Various reports are run on intervals that range from weekly, to monthly, to bi-monthly, to quarterly, to semi-annually, to annually. Some reports involve extracting information from our POS (Point-of-Sales) software (which also houses our product listings database) to be converted into a more useful format (Access or Excel) for day-to-day use. Other reports involve extracting sales information to be organized and reported for billing/commission purposes. I usually take care of these as early as possible in the week, to get them done and out of the way so as to leave as much of the rest of my week free as possible for working on planograms. Category Managers may request additional reports for various reasons during the week. These requests are prioritized and balanced with the rest of my workload.

I should note that these reports are not from the Rx (prescriptions drugs) side of the business, but from the rest of the store (including OTCs (Over-The-Counter medications), Confectionary, Cosmetics, etc.).


Q: I think a lot of merchandising work would be applicable across the retail industry–if you got sick of working for a drug-store company, you could probably take your skills to a grocery-store or the Gap. Am I right about that? What would be the hardest parts of the job to relearn if you did that?

A: For the most part, I would say that is quite accurate. If I wanted to keep doing the kind of work I’m doing now but in a different retail environment, I shouldn’t have much difficulty transferring my skills. Grocery chains definitely use planograms. I don’t know if retail clothing outlets make use of them or not, but something like a Staples probably would.

It’s unlikely that a small business would take the time to design proper planograms. They would be more likely to adjust their shelves to hold the inventory that they have on hand, fill holes left by discontinued items and move new products in as they get them. It would be medium and large businesses with multiple retail locations that would employ Space Management personnel. The purpose of creating planograms is not just to have the best items available, but to have a consistency to your product offering and layout across your retail environment.

I explain it to the lay-person like this: If you have a particular brand, scent and size of deodorant that you prefer to buy, it is my job to see that if you go into two of our locations that have the same size of deodorant & anti-perspirant planogram (section length and section height – either can vary from store-to-store), you will be able to find that deodorant in the exact same spot of the section in both stores. That’s assuming, of course, that your preferred product is not a bottom-feeder in the market. In that case, your product might disappear from the shelf. If it does, it will disappear from the other store too.

As for the hardest parts of the job to relearn, in the short-term it would be learning how to operate their space planning software (the one we use is not what I perceive to be the industry standard – ours is, to my knowledge, more powerful) and the software involved with obtaining sales data. I have no doubt that I would catch on quickly enough, but until I did I would feel fairly useless. After that, I would need to learn to understand the products that I would be planogramming and how customers shop for these products. Finally, I would need to learn how this company’s space-planning practices differ from how I approach planograms now.

Q: [Since you work in the head office of your company, h]ow often do you have to go to an actual store? What do you do when/if you go there?

A: Someone who does my job would have to work in at least a regional office of some sort, if not the head office. I do work in my company’s head office. It is from there that I am able to distribute any new planograms to all of our stores.

As noted above, once for every planogram that I work on, I will have to visit a store.

I should point out that this physical testing is not necessarily an industry-standard practice. I know of at least one, very large vendor who produces planograms that rarely, if ever, tests their planograms physically. Having seen the results, they should.

Another reason to visit a store would be if they are renovating (or if they are a new store prior to opening) and within the city or not too far beyond it. In such cases, my department will usually make one or more trips to the store to assist with any new developments in Space Management, such as brand new sections never seen before in our stores. These might also simultaneously be regarded as test planograms.



Q: What is the pace of work? Do most days resemble each other in terms of pace, or do you have busy times and easy times? If the latter, what causes a busy time? Is it a big problem if you have to call in sick?

A: Some days are definitely busier than others. Mondays, in particular, are always busy for me due to the number of reports and other responsibilities from the Merchandising Analyst side of the job. Most of them need to be done early in the week, so I cram as much of it into Monday as I can. I get very little Space Management work done on a Monday. This is not necessarily true of the other two guys. As Senior Space Management Specialist, I have some responsibilities that they do not.

Sudden reporting requests can also increase the pace of work. Days when I get to work on nothing but building planograms are the ones that feel the easiest. That’s not to say that I’m getting less work done, but it weighs less on the mind, and so feels easier. If I’m getting close to a deadline and still have planograms left to build, that can also increase the pace.

I suppose I’m equating pace with stress level. The more stressed I am, the more frantic the work feels. The less stressed I am, the more I have time to think about what I’m doing and ponder alternatives. I’m also equating pace with the days I’m mostly likely to stay late to keep working. More likely to stay late equals higher pace, at least it does in my mind.

It is not usually a problem if I have to call in sick. Mind you, I’m a stubborn bastard and pretty much have to be vomiting every 15 minutes and barely be able to walk before I call in sick, so this never really gets tested. Most of the reports that I have to do can either be put off for a couple of days or handled by the other two guys if they can’t wait. As for planograms, there’s almost never anything so pressing that my being absent for a day or two would be a problem. In a pinch, the other two guys can access any planograms that I’m working on as they’re stored on a network drive that we all have access to. If they had to launch one of my planograms for me, they would have to retrieve other files that I don’t store on a network drive, but on a personal drive instead. All but one of those files they could retrieve from the Category Manager of the category the planogram is from, and the other file they could easily recreate themselves.



Q: How many stores are you responsible for? How many other people do the sort of work you do within the company?

A: I’m not sure of the exact figure, but I believe our chain has close to 70 stores. In addition to that, we provide planograms for the OTC sections of the pharmacies within the grocery stores of our parent company across the country (I can’t even guess how many of these stores there are).

There are two other people besides myself who work as Space Management Clerks (again, Merchandising Analyst is also a part of their jobs, though not necessarily stated in their titles) not including our boss. She mostly oversees our work and helps ensure that we’re working at a good pace, but from time-to-time she may take a project on herself. As she is responsible for more than just the Space Management team, she spends most of her time dealing with duties and projects outside of our department. We are fairly self-sufficient, which helps to make this possible for her.



Can you talk a little more about what the plannogram software produces? Does it give you an image or a graph, or simply a list of data?

While you’re working with it on the computer screen, one window shows a diagram of the section you’re working on (at whatever dimensions you’ve specified), complete with how many shelves you’ve put in there (at whatever dimensions you’ve specified) and with the however many products you’ve put on the various shelves this far (at whatever dimensions the product library has stored for them, if it is in the product library at all — if not, it will give you a window for you to enter information that it will then save in the library).

Another window shows a list of the items in the planogram.

A third window, that starts out minimized, shows a “shopping cart”. Items that are deleted from the planogram automatically go here. You could, in theory, import a list of items that you intend to add to the planogram here and from here drag and drop the items into the planogram (either the diagram or the item list would work). We don’t do that, but other organizations might. Some programs treat the shopping cart differently — some treat it as a disembodied shelf on the planogram diagram, outside of the section’s actual dimensions. I think our program can treat it this way too, but we prefer the 3rd window option.

There are other kinds of shelves than just shelves. There’s pegboard (board with holes in it at set intervals that allow you to insert peg-hooks that allow you to hang products that use hangers or have peg-holes themselves), slatwall (similar to pegboard but instead of holes it has horizontal grooves at set vertical intervals that allow you to hang products but is less restrictive than pegboard horizontally – often more restrictive vertically though) and lots of other things that we don’t use – hanging bars, case displays (think the freezer cases in the middle of aisle near the meat section of a grocery store – the ones you look down into to get whatever meat might be on sale that week or what brand of pizza is on special) and so on.

Everything needs to have dimensions entered at some point – everything! Even though the picture looks two-dimensional, everything has (at least) three-dimensions. Even pegboard and slatwall, which are the most 2D things you get, have “interval” dimensions — how far apart the center of the pegholes / slatgrooves are. How far apart the notches are in the uprights that shelves can be inserted into is a kind of dimension. If there’s a buffer-zone at the top or bottom of the section where there are no notches/pegholes/slatwall, that’s another kind of dimension that can be entered. The amount of vertical space occupied by a shelf (it’s “thickness”) is another dimension that can have an impact.

I can’t understate how important dimensions are. Depending on how information is entered into the product library, it might be something that could be imported with the other information, or it might be something that the user enters themself – item-by-item. For me it’s typically the latter, to a point. If you have ten different items that are all the same dimensions (height, width and depth), you could measure one of the products and enter and save those dimensions for all ten. You do what you can to save time whenever possible, but not to the point where you risk comprimising accuracy.

But, to get back on topic, what is printed out for stores is a shot of the diagram and a shelf-by-shelf item list. We could, in theory, print out more than just that. If a graph of some sort would be helpful, our program has some capabilities of doing that. I don’t know if all space management software packages do and I suspect that several of them don’t.

If the section is very big in relation to the average size of the product, we may include several shots of the diagram, some of them zoomed in closer to see just part of the section so it is easier for the store to visually check that they’re on the right track. That won’t usually happen with just the click of a button, so we’ll have to print out several files (in PDF) and combine them all later.

What makes you good at your job? I imagine it as a very visual/spatial kind of intelligence–is that something you need in this role?What sort of person would you recommend pursue this line of work? What sort of person should stay away from it?

I don’t think it is any one quality that makes me good at what I do, but having a right combination of qualities. Note that I said “a” right combination, rather than “the” right combination. There are many different qualities that, as long as you’re good at some of them, you can learn the rest.

I think the most important one is attention to detail; to accuracy. Being off by even fractions of an inch (those fractions can add up quickly) can be the difference between a section working the way it is supposed to, to the store having to make adjustments to get it close to what you told them would work. Likewise with the sales data that is run to analyse the section. If you fail to take into account that a product underwent a package change that necessitated a UPC change (there are rules that govern these things), you may fail to notice that, individually, those two different UPCs don’t look like a very good product but, when added together, they end up being one of your top-ranked products. If you miss these things, you could be missing out on sales.

Visual/spatial intelligence can definitely be very helpful. Someone without a good awareness of this could get away with it to a point. Because we work in computers first and foremost, the program will alert you when things are off. The shelf turns red on the screen when the products you’ve put on it are too wide (added together) for the length of the shelf. The entries in the items list turn yellow when the product doesn’t fit in the space you’ve put it in. Fixing these problems is where an innate awareness for such things comes in handy. Otherwise, you’re just blindly plugging and playing until you get something that works. And, when things don’t work out physically the way they did in the screen, having a good awareness will help you solve it quicker and probably give you a hint as to what dimensions are the ones that are off. Paying attention to what is seen at eye-level is very important. There are a lot of other intangibles that can go into what makes a planogram look good or bad. One example: having large products up high and small products down low will make the planogram look top-heavy and be unappealing to look at.

Having an eye for color (i.e. this color doesn’t look good next to that color) can also be a benefit , but sadly, this is an area I don’t excel in. I can get by without it but arguably my planograms would be even better if I had an eye for this.

It is a job where I do believe that one of the most important things you should have is prior merchandising experience. It very much helps to be able to think as a someone at store level thinks and be able to balance their concerns/needs with that of growing sales. For example, if you only devote one facing to a product that a store can only fit three-deep on a shelf and it comes in a case of 12, you’re really going to piss the stores off to have to store 9 of those products out back (a 3-to-1 ratio of out-back to on-shelf). That product should probably get a couple of more facings to get the majority of the case on the shelf.

When you go into the stores to implement the plannogram, do the staff or management ever disagree? Do in-store staff get surveyed on
merchandising? Are there aspects of it that are up to the individual store’s team, or is everything decided centrally?

Do you mean disagree with me going there to set up the planogram, or disagree with the decisions we’ve made with the planogram itself? If the former: if the store was adamant that we not test in their location we would respect their wishes. It’s never come up though, as most stores are more than happy to have someone from the office come in and do the work for them. They might negotiate with me a little on the exact timing if the date I was aiming for was a bad time for them (they might have an inventory scheduled that day, for example), in which case I will work with them to get a time that works for both of us.

If the latter, everyone has an opinion. If there’s something they don’t like, they’ll usually ask questions about it. I’ll do my best to explain the rationale behind the decision and try to make them more comfortable with it. Once in a while, they do bring up something I hadn’t considered that not only makes sense, it also seems viable. It’s rare that I would completely redesign a planogram for something like that, but I certainly would adjust a couple of shelves if their suggestion seems like it would improve sales.

Store management know how to get a hold of category management if they wish to make comments on the merchandising. Some store managers are very vocal, others not so much. We do our best to keep stores happy, but sometimes keeping them happy would hurt sales so we sometimes have to ask them to just go along with it.

Most everything is decided centrally. We mostly avoid having “flex space” in the planograms. That said, we know that some stores will go behind our back and make their own modifications. For example, they might sell a lot of a particular product that we didn’t provide what the store considers an adequate number of facings for. They might reduce facings on other products to increase that one instead. We basically just turn a blind-eye to this. We know we can’t really expect to give the perfect planogram to everyone. Oddball situations are just the nature of the business.

Do you have a cube or an office? If a cube, how tall are the walls? If an office, do you have a window?

A cube. I’m not sure of the exact height (I’ve never had to planogram one, so I’ve never measured it :) ). It’s not quite as tall as I am. It’s a bit over 5 feet high, but no more than 5-1/2 feet high at the most.

Does your office have a dress-code? If so, what are the basic parameters?

It does: Business Casual. It’s pretty broad category – basically, I’m not required to wear a suit and tie but still need to look professional.

What do most people in your office do at lunch-hour? Are lunches even taken, or are people pushed to “work through”?

Most people seem to take a lunch, and most of them take the full allotted break, but obviously that depends on the person. Some bring their lunches every day, some go out for fast-food every day and there’s many who are somewhere in between. Some use the lunchroom (even some of the fast-food people will bring it back to the lunchroom) others eat at their desk. Like pretty much any other office, some will occassionally use their lunch break to run errands but I don’t think there are many who consistently do this. Some even use their lunch break to go to the gym 2-3 times a week (there’s one very close by).

So far as I’m aware, it would be against company policy to push employees to work through their lunch. Some will work through it, but that’s usually because it is in their nature to do so. Some others come in early to get things done, some others stay late. I think, though, that the total number of people who contribute extra time regularily are in the minority.

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Me again, just to say that I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing with this series, as I don’t have any vocationally specific/intense stories coming up. However, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being interested in work and jobs, so if you would be interested in participating in this series yourself, I’m sure I’d love to interview you. The only rules are that you earn income from the job and you’ve been doing it at least a year (approximately). Even if you don’t think your work is that fascinating, it’s probably because you do it all the time and to an outsider it actually is!! If you might be interested, let me know on the “contact” tab above, and I’ll get right back to you!

And thanks again to Aaron!!

January 25th, 2011

If you’re awesome, see here

My publisher, Biblioasis, is hiring–a real full-time gig with a real literary publisher. These are rare and special events.

You can read the posting at the link above, but allow me to add a few things: Dan’s really nice, and so are all the other Biblioasis associates I’ve ever met. I myself am of course charming, and if the incumbent ever has to email me about making some arrangement, I will always reply promptly and politely, and maybe even make a funny joke. Also, if you’ve not worked much in publishing before, allow me to point out that it’s really rare to get to learn and do so much different stuff in one job. I’ve only been to Windsor once, but it was far warmer there than here. And, of course, the books are amazing!

December 30th, 2010

Reverb 29 and the Freelance Lifestyle

Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

(Author: Kathryn Fitzmaurice)

{Future tool: The 99%’s How to Budget for an Irregular Income. For the next 3 days as you round out your year, we’ll share one tool each day to help you plan your year ahead.}

Sigh. I really love the effort and enthusiasm behind Reverb, but I think maybe having 31 different authors contribute without knowing what others were doing was not the best way to organize–a lot of these prompts are very similar to each other. Since I’ve already shared my “alive” moment, and my “best ordinary” moment, I’m hard pressed to come up with a “defining” moment, so I think I’ll skip it. Perhaps other people’s lives are of more moment than mine (hahaha).

But I thought I’d point out the budget tool that’s included in today’s prompt is really useful (there have been other planning tools included with the Reverb package, but I haven’t been paying attention. If today’s tool is any indication, I should’ve.)

Ages ago, in the summertime when I was doing those “Jobs for Writers” posts, I believe I promised to have a guest post on freelancing. It never happened, mainly because experts I asked couldn’t spare the time–which should be a strong lesson about the freelancing lifestyle right there. I never wanted to write the whole post myself: I was only freelance for a year, and it was a slightly strange situation. I do also work with and administrate for freelancers now, but my advice on how they “should” do things may well be based on how to make things easiest for the employer, not the freelancer.

Nevertheless, I know enough about the freelance life to know that the budgeting post above is very interesting, and I think extremely useful for those who have already been at it a while and are reasonably successful, but have run into some cashflow glitches. However, if you were just getting started in the freelance world, this advice would be pretty useless to you–how would you know what your average income would be, or when things might be likely to take a dip? This 99% blog seems pretty good, so maybe there’s another post somewhere on getting started as a person with an “irregular income,” but there’s actually a few really gold bits of advice to novice freelancers hiding in this post. Allow me to pull them out for you:

The first year is difficult. You generally don’t have the ability to base your budget on averages or on the lowest income from the last twelve months. (I was able to do this because I’d been earning money before I quit to blog full-time.)

Yep, the most useful way start a freelance career is to wet your feet while you work somewhere else. Not happy news to those who hope to just dive right in, but it is extremely useful, both for being able to budget and project income/workflows, and just for building up clients. You can do this a couple ways–In Method A, you have a job you like and are good at. Once you’ve been there a while, and have proved your talents and reliability, you ask your employers if you can go freelance. This is different from “telecommuting” or “working from home,” in that it’s on an hourly basis, not salary, and not necessarily guaranteed work, but with a lot more flexibility. In Method B, you have a job you don’t much like (whether you are good at it or not), so you begin trying to find other gigs you can do on a piece basis, evenings and weekends. It takes a long time to get a client base of folks who trust and respect (and need) your work. In fact, it may take a long time to even have paying clients; many freelancers start getting their name out with volunteer projects and favours for friends. Once you’ve gotten pretty good at finding, doing, and getting paid for the work, you essentially have 2 jobs and can quit one, if you so desire.

Before I quit my “real” job to become a full-time blogger, I began to set aside a large sum of money as an emergency fund. I figured that if my income dropped below the minimum I needed to get by, I could tap the emergency fund to provide supplemental cash. With luck, I’d be able to ride out any rocky storms. (I’ve been fortunate to not have to do this.) When you have an irregular income, the bigger your emergency savings, the better.

Yep, you definitely have to do this if you don’t try one of the gradually freelance methods above, and even if you do ease into it–still recommended. Even super-crack much-beloved freelancers have dry months–that’s what’s scary /exciting about it, I guess.


Back to me–I think freelancing is an awesome way to balance a creative career with a more lucrative one, despite the fact it didn’t really work out for me when I tried it. Some of us really really like having conversations in the course of the day, especially if we’re going to write in the evening. Anyway, I think it’s an interesting career path, and if there’s any happy freelancers reading this who could volunteer to be interviewed or even write that guest post, I’d be very happy to hear from you!

December 7th, 2010

Reverb Day 7

From Reverb: Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011? (Author: Cali Harris)

You know what? It’s not a new discovery, only one I am reminded to appreciate, but it’s the community of my colleagues at work. I am so lucky to have people who are smart and funny, generous and interesting, and good at their jobs to boot, to eat lunch with and hang out with and buy birthday cards for, and occasionally commiserate about the stuff that’s not going so well.

As Ani Difranco once said, “Nobody likes their job / nobody got enough sleep,” and for me, those things could really grind away at me if it weren’t for friends who say, when you try to work through lunch, “If you don’t eat, you die.”

As for what community I would like to connect with more deeply, it’s probably writers beyond Toronto. I am rather Toronto-centric in my literary interests. Certainly not exclusively, but I feel so connected and at home here, and so interested in what is going on with writers here. But the larger Canada is my home too, and I could take a stronger interest in what’s going on outside of the GTA.

September 3rd, 2010

Useful information

Here’s a bunch of random stuff I’ve read on the web lately that might be helpful to you:

10 Mistakes Freelancers Make: I worked freelance for a while and made many of these mistakes, which probably contributed to how miserable I was (but not entirely; some people just have a set number of hours beyond which they NEED to have a conversation with someone). Now I work with/administrate for freelancers, and I see the best ones avoid this stuff. The piece is a bit general, but if you’re just starting out, probably exactly what you need.

Definitions of Different Kinds of Cousins: I’m from a small family and can generally define everybody by pointing and saying their names, but I can see the lure of wanting to know the exact title of your cousin’s daughter or your grandmother’s cousin. The folks from the Emily Post Institute finally set the record straight.

Q&A with Daniel Alarcon: Apparently the New Yorker does these little Q&As with their fiction writers as a web-only feature now. The questions are quite generic, but the writers that the New Yorker pulls are so good that their answers are still worth reading.

The Finding Time to Write piece is part of a writing advice column the Vagabond Trust has been running every Thursday. The best piece of advice in it is this–so true for some of us, but no one ever says it: “Maybe you can have your web browser open and keep an eye on your Facebook news feed while you’re writing. Maybe you can sit on the couch with your laptop and watch TV while the kids are screaming and playing in the room and you can still get your writing done. I don’t know, I’m not you. If you feel that you just can’t stop doing something to write, to to write while you’re doing it. If it doesn’t work, you actually are going to have to stop doing whatever that is for a little while.”

Hope that helps with…something or other. Happy Labour Day, peeps!

August 18th, 2010

Awesomeness

I thought I pulled a muscle in my neck, but it seems to be more or less all right now.

I thought there were no more TCBYs (This Country’s Best Yoghurt) outlets in Toronto outside of movie theatre snack counters (and the above website says same) but then I found one, on Yonge just North of Isabella, on the west side. It was very exciting (and as tasty as I remember. All the yoghurt tastes like coconut, which as far as I am concerned is a bonus!)

The TCBY (yes, this is a completely separate bullet point) is inside a coffeeshop (though clearly marked from the outside). While there, I saw a man order a large chocolate-vanilla swirl from the frozen-yoghurt side, and a carrot muffin from the coffee shop side. Passing him later, I saw that he had smashed up the muffin and PUT IT IN THE BOWL. It was like ad-hoc ice-cream and cake. Genius.

Amy’s helpful guide to Retail Etiquette for Dummies (even if you are not a dummy, this is still entertaining, in a squirmy, “People sure can be jerks” way).

This awesome video that Zach Wells posted of a toddler reciting a poem from memory, and doing a darn good job of it, too!

Also on the subject of small children, an acquaintance and her husband have gone overseas to adopt a baby, and yesterday they got her! I guess I shouldn’t share their personal blog URL, but I have to tell you, people experiencing that level of happiness is pretty mindblowing.

June 14th, 2010

Jobs for writers, part 3

What if someone says, “I love books and I’m always reading. I should be an editor.”

Because I spent a great deal of time and money getting a publishing certificate, it is my knee-jerk reaction to get prissy when someone says something like this. “Does having a really good body qualify you to be a surgeon? Does watching a lot of CSI make you a cop?”

This is mainly bluster–the best editors are exactly the people who could say the above–well, and a little more: those who read omnivorously and think critically about all of it. If you write reviews (insightful rigorous reviews, not silly ones) for no reason other than to test and explore your feelings for the text, if you were the person everyone counted on for a page of notes in writing workshop (even better if you couldn’t let the typos go), if you were easily able to spot patterns and themes and write essays about them in undergrad, you probably would make a good editor. People who would not make good editors include those who said one nice thing to everyone in workshop while patiently waiting for their own turns, people who didn’t like university essays because they just wanted to enjoy the text without analysing it, and folks who have a few favourite authors and don’t really like to go much beyond them. And actually, about those essay writers, I think it’s probably also a good sign if you kept getting Cs because you would always mentioned whether you *liked* the text or how well you thought those metaphors and symbols were working. Academic analysis is not, for good or ill, evaluative, but editing is.

So, there you go–the truth that editorial instinct is not really taught in a classroom.

However, taking apart someone’s manuscript and telling them how to write it better is not an entry-level position. You need to climb the ladder as an editorial assistant doing press kits and tip sheets and review packages and credits–things you *do* learn about in a classroom–before you can get anywhere your instincts can work. Is that the proper definition of ironic? Some days I feel like I’ve entirely lost track of that word.

Also, and this always shocks everyone, you can have a good fun job in publishing *without* being an editor! Not my line, but I know that publicists are professional, strategic book-enthusiasts, and in a different way, so are the sales and marketing folk. Financial and tech jobs in publishing look a lot like those in other industries, only more bookish (and, sigh, lower-paid) and then there’s art, design, page composition… So, there’s a lot more going in publishing than just making the words lovely. To even understand what jobs are out there, let alone get one (er, except the tech and finance stuff), you need some background.

There are many ways to do that, but lots of employers really prefer a publishing program. I don’t think there’s a big difference in how much these programs are respected–from what I hear, all are pretty good. Just find something convenient and vaguely interesting to you. Centenial, you’ll note, you need to do full-time, while the other two can be part-time. I found that once you get a few courses under your belt, you become hireable, and then it is nice to be able to finish the program at night while you are working. If you get a really lovely employer, they might even pay for it.

But this is not the only way. Publishing school is expensive and time-consuming and while I found lots of it valuable, lots of other bits simply don’t apply to the path I am on or the part of the industry I am in. Employers like these programs because they are something of a promise that you know what you are doing and have realistic ideas about the work, but there are other ways to promise them that.

If you somehow pick up some solid experience at one job, you are more likely to get the next one. Real useful publishing experience includes serious  work on something that was actually published–not proofing your friends’ essays (although maybe PhD theses, if you did a number) or a blog, but say, a literary journal you volunteered for (even a unversity/college one, if it is a bit known and you can provide copies). Zines are surprisingly respected, too, if you did serious work and it was a serious zine (ie., could people the editors didn’t know personally buy it?) And working on publications that aren’t books (magazines, newspapers, corporate communications) of course counts, too.

These easiest way to get experience is internships–unfortunately, the easiest way to get an internship is to be in a publishing program (they’ll help you find one). Sigh. But you could get one anyway–there are lots out there and they should really be a post in themselves. Try not to think of these as unpaid work–try to think of them as free school! Even the best internship will involve a lot of the deadly ffts: photocopying, filing, phoning, faxing (who still uses a fax machine, you are wondering–oh no!) However, anyone decent who is employing interns knows that the ffts aren’t the intern’s heart’s desire and will try to give you something cool to do (as well as free books and all the leftover meeting food). You should get to sit in on meetings (obey both injunctions to be silent and encouragement to speak up), to meet any author in the office, and to work on at least one or two independent projects. And an intern should try learn everything possible–at the very least, read what you photocopy and pay attention at the meetings. One of the best things an editorial intern (I return to what I know) can do is be asked to incorporate hardcopy editorial changes into a Word doc. Sounds dull, but it’s so great to see how an experienced, talented editor (try not to work for the lousy ones) sharpens a manuscript. I actually did that sort of work for a long time and it was good for my own writing, too.

Avoid: internships at houses where you hate all the books, massive commutes that are going to make it impossible to work evenings (unless you can afford not to!), and anyone who seems from the interview to clearly be a jerk. You can afford to be a bit choosier about internships than real jobs, and should do. I’d also recommend not taking a full-time unpaid one that lasts longer than three months–that’s the standard, and it won’t necessarily look better on your resume if you stay longer, and you might get very hungry. However, if it is a paid internship (they do exist) and you like it, why not stay if they offer? On the flip side, probably not worth quitting a bad three-month internship unless they are actually abusing you. It’ll be over soon and you’ll have the resume cred even if they kept you locked in the copier room 40 hours a week. But that’s why it’s good not to sign on for longer than 3 months. Oh, and don’t expect an internship to turn into a real job, though occasionally they do–there usually just aren’t any open positions. But if it was a happy experience, ask that they keep you mind in case one does…

Ok, the question everyone asks: is it bad to be working on books all day and writing one in the evening. And I have no idea–it’s not bad for *me* to do it, but I can see how it would be draining or crazy-making if I had a different personality type. This is really a personal fit question. But I suppose it does matter to me that I don’t work on books of short stories, and even when I briefly did, they were nothing like mine. I think I might find that hard to have much distance on. I also don’t do the manuscript-taking-apart work mentioned above–my job is the much more techinical, unglam production editing that you only find out about when you start taking the classes or wandering around the office.

Wow, this post is long, and there’s more to say–anyone who knows more or better or different should chime in, and I’ll eventually write another one of these on the freelance world, which I know even less about, so maybe don’t wait for that with bated breath.

Also, for those who have been following my personal dramas–I fell pretty solidly off the caffeine wagon today and my head still hurts! I think there’s just something wrong with me!

June 3rd, 2010

Imaginary Dream Jobs

I mentioned a while back that my dream job is shepherd at a kitten farm a job which is notable for not actually existing. Scott mentioned to me today that his dream job, which rivals mine for awesomeness, would be to teach English to dolphins (apparently, they are on their way). Which opens up a whole new conversational vista–when you ask people what their ideal employment would be, they usually limit their answers to the possible. What would your dream job be if it had to be imaginary?

June 1st, 2010

Jobs for Writers, part 2 of ?

Every time I try to write about this subject, I get uncomfortable–so much as just what works for the individual writer. Some people really need to have a job they love a lot, even it it’s just a “day job,” or they can’t be motivated to get up in the morning. Some writers would rather not like their jobs all that much, or they “day job” winds up distracting from the writing. Some would rather work part time and have half of every day to write; some people will work nonstop for part of the year and not even touch their manuscripts, then have a big block of time to write and do nothing else (teachers!)

Whatever is functional for you, do that. But, as I told the students at that careers event that sparked all this ages ago, I’ve had a lot of jobs and some were more functional for me than others, so maybe there’s something people could learn from that! I mean, as Ms. Difranco says, “Nobody likes their job / nobody got enough sleep” but below are some things that let me write and even helped with some projects, as well as helping me to be reasonably happy with my life and lifestyle while I was working there.

Bookstore salesperson was the first job I ever had that I didn’t utterly loathe; it was shocking. What did I like about it? The obvious, first off: getting to hang out with books, seeing the new stuff first, the world’s most useful-to-me employee discount and other book-related bonuses. I sometimes liked chatting with customers about what they might like to read, though you still do get your jerks and your people who want “the thing that was on the radio this morning, about that dog? What do you mean you don’t listen to the radio?” I found the running around of the job, and all the chitter-chat with customers was a good balance to the sedentary silence of writing.

Less obvious perks were that, unlike most minimum-wage retail jobs, this one drew a wider range than after-school teenagers. Lots of bookish adults (including other writers) worked there and were fun to talk to–actually, even the after-school teenagers were pretty bright and well-read.

Most of the downsides of this gig may have come from the fact that I worked for a couple big chain stores. I’ve never had an indie bookstore job, unfortunately, but since I’ve known a lot of folks who did, I can make a reasonably educated guess that those jobs are more fun, though not much better paid. One issue was that the stores were mamoth, and floor staff and cashiers were forbidden to sit or, heaven forbid, read. There was always something to run to the back for, something to dust or scrub or carry–and books are heavy. After 8.5 hours darting about on concrete floors, I often had little energy left for writing. And no matter how literate, retail is retail–you can’t really live on minimum wage unless you are working a bloody lot of hours, you likely won’t have benefits, customers feel free to treat you like a moron and (sometimes) so do managers. Low points of my bookstore career include being berated by a customer for getting a mystery author’s name wrong, being berated by a manager for wearing a candy necklace, and being berated by everyone once I started working at the special orders desk because it, despite the big sign, apparently looked like a complaints desk.

Library clerk was basically a less capitalistic, more relaxed, better paid version of the bookstore job. You occasionally got to do some fun cool book-tracking-down, occasionally got screeched by a crazy person, but mainly as long as you got your work done, you were allowed to do what you wanted (ie., read). I guess I can’t vouch for every library (this was an academic one), but there was no “keeping up appearances” busywork, which was really nice. Downsides? Well, it could get a bit dull on some days, and on others, because it is a public place, a library attracts the sorts of people who get chased out of malls (teenaged hooligans, the homeless, the ranting, unsupervised children) and the staff has to deal with them as best they can. From what I hear, most library jobs have a strong hiking-around-carrying-books component as exhausting as at a bookstore, but I actually had a desk-sitting gig. Once again, this was a desk that people frequently mistook for the complaints area, despite another big sign, so I came in for more than my share of yelling, but at least I had a comfy chair. The real trouble with library gigs is that they are limited in scope, hard to come by and rarely full-time–I left the one I had because I was graduating and it was a student position. If you are seriously interested in being an actual librarian, you need a degree in library science–fascinating, but surely not easy.

Teaching is, as judged by per-hour strain, the hardest job I have ever had. I have tutored ESL, TA’d essay writing and literature, and taught high school students how to write short-stories, and all were fall-on-the-couch exhausting. Deeply rewarding, mind, but exhausting. And of course, the biggest danger with teaching is that, unlike waiting tables (the second-hardest job I’ve ever had), you can’t just eventually say “Screw it, it doesn’t matter,” with a given class, student, semester, etc. Because it does matter, so much, what you teach kids (or anyone, really) so the temptation exists to put in the overtime, do the extra projects, come out for the sports teams, and put everything you can into it, because the kids will get so much (or at least something) out of it. This is, of course, deadly if you are trying to write in your “off” hours.

This post was original going to include some of the silly things people say about jobs for writers (“You should just do a little journalism to make money!” Last time I checked, journalism was a four-year degree and a competitive field, and also not overflowing with money) but I am (mainly) not doing that because it’s too annoying. One thing that I will put in is that I once read a writer profile that said that once one had published a relatively successful book, one could get creative-writing teaching jobs and “make a living as a writer.” I am sure any teacher reading this will recognize this as offensive–if one is teaching, one is making a living as a teacher. Which is actually still amazing for one’s writing–students will challenge so many standard assumptions about writing and bring you all kinds of new energy and ideas, so it is totally worth the exhaustion if you can figure out how to teach briefly or temporarily or somehow not have it overrun all your time. But if you take a teaching gig under the impression that it is basically a grant with a bunch of annoying students hanging around, said students will become incredibly embittered and if they are lucky, hate only you and not actually writing. Just sayin’.

You may have noticed here that none of these jobs are incredibly well-paid and my standards of “fun” are pretty low (ie., not getting yelled at). That is because I have left out of here all the jobs I had that didn’t work out at all, including the fast food restaurant where hooligans regularly stole the mirrors out of the bathroom, the factory that turned out was actually some guy’s bedroom, and the fancy restaurant where the enormous wall-mounted ketchup dispenser exploded. And the time one of my fellow chambermaids seemed to be considering taking a swing at me with the carpet sweeper. So possibly I am not the best person to be getting career advice from–please chime in if you have other jobs to suggest to writers, or would like to contradict anything I’ve said (nicely).

I’ll do another post on the wonderful world of publishing soon, and that will pretty much be the sum of my knowledge.

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