Freelancing Diaries: Part 5 — New Year Resolutions and Clients!

January 3, 2017 in Blogging, Freelance, Japan, Misc, On Writing, Travel

clients

Wow. So here we are, 2017. I feel like I’ve been neglecting this blog. Looking back, I realise I only posted 3 times in 2016! Three times! But it’s all about quality, not quantity. Right?

2016 was just a crazy year. One of the most important, rewarding and challenging years of my life. I jumped ship from my employer late last year to embark on my freelancing journey, full of anticipation, excitement and trepidation. What I ended up experiencing was unlike anything I had expected. 

For starters, I thought I was going to struggle some months finding work, being a new freelancer and all. As it turned out, the exact opposite came to fruition, as I was bombarded with shitloads of work pretty much from straight after Chinese New Year in February, all the way until…well, it’s still going. In a year of 365 days, I’m fairly certain I worked close to 350 days, and that’s including this week I just had off vacationing in Japan (from where I type this post). I actually had to turn down about half a dozen projects in the lead-up to this vacation just so I could keep this week free, and I still have a bunch of stuff waiting for me as soon as I get back. There was literally one week (in September) where I didn’t have anything on my plate, but on every other day of the year there was something hanging around on my “to do” list. In fairness, on some of these days I worked for maybe only 20 to 30 minutes, but always having something to do feels so different to having a completely “free” day.

On the other hand, I was dead wrong in thinking that freelancing meant sitting around in a cafe for a couple of hours a day and doing whatever else I wanted the rest of the time. Yes, I did sit around in cafes quite regularly, but I had ZERO time to do any of my own stuff. Work and money took precedence, and this meant less time writing (on my blogs and on my projects) and less time with my family. After working out intensely for the better part of two years, I did virtually no exercise at all this year. I didn’t gain much weight but the waistline doesn’t lie. A good measuring stick for how free I am is how up-to-date I am with my movie reviews — right now I’ve got around 60 reviews outstanding. It also meant my wife had to shoulder a heavier burden with the housework and looking after the kids, even though I was pretty much at home most of the time.

In all, it was a year of unchartered waters where I learned a lot and tested my limits. I was better off financially than I thought I would ever be from taking the plunge into freelancing, and it was indeed very rewarding to be appreciated and valued for work that I took personal responsibility for. It’s just so different to working for someone and getting a pat on the back. However, I hated that I had no time for myself and how my health deteriorated throughout the year.

I’m currently battling topical steroid withdrawal, which is the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. In short, I’ve had eczema since childhood and gradually and unwittingly developed an addiction to topical steroids, which artificially suppress inflammation and mask your underlying health problems, whether it be your gut, intestines, liver or kidneys. And they also suppresses your adrenal glands so much that they stop producing cortisol. While it is still not accepted by the general medical community, there are now doctors who believe adult eczema is actually an iatrogenic condition caused by topical steroid use (check out the ITSAN website to find out more). The only cure, unfortunately, is to go cold turkey and suffer through a long and traumatising process in which you allow your body to heal naturally over time. My entire body flared up almost immediately as expected, and the intense, deep itching and flaking skin is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced (sleeping well is an impossibility). I’m doing everything I can to speed up the process, such as following a strict diet (no wheat and other grains, dairy, eggs or sugar) and taking supplements and Chinese herbal medicine to heal my gut and improve my general well-being, doing acupuncture, light exercise and even meditation and deep breathing exercises. For most people, the withdrawal process can take a year or even several years, but I’m hoping to buck the trend. I go through good days and bad days like everyone else, though it seems I’m not as serious as a lot of other cases I’ve seen and I’ve already made remarkable progress in just 6 weeks. Hoping to kick this debilitating condition in 6 months, but it will require a lasting change in lifestyle to keep it at from ever coming back.

Anyway, so my New Year’s resolutions for 2017 are simple. First, work on my health — both physical and mental. When you go through something as harrowing as TSW, it makes you appreciate a healthy body and mind so much more. Secondly, I need to find time for my own writings. Whether it is getting up earlier in the morning, watching less TV at night or spending less time on my smartphone, I need to make some sacrifices to get shit done. This year is really now or never. 

Both of these hinge on the main topic I want to talk about in this post: Clients. I’ve dealt with more clients than I can count over the past year.Clients can make a project enjoyable or a nightmare. Some can be great, and some can make me facepalm just about every time. The thing is, you never know what you’re going to get, and often initial impressions can be deceiving.

I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with clients since becoming a freelancer. The most important thing is to always be professional, even when you feel like you have established a connection and have become friends. That means being friendly, responding to emails and calls, maintaining open channels of communication, and always adhering to deadlines. I’ve found that, if you simply act professionally, clients will really appreciate you and will keep giving you more work. They may even recommend you to others. I’ve frankly been a little shocked at how much clients appreciate it if you just do the job you’re paid for and do it on time. Apparently a lot of freelancers aren’t like that, which is pretty shocking if you consider that’s what they’re supposed to do for a living.

There are so many things that go into a client relationship. It’s more than just them giving you work and you sending it back. Sometimes they require invoices or there are forms and agreements you have to sign. Sometimes you have questions to ask them and vice versa. Sometimes they give you feedback and you have to amend your work accordingly. It can be surprising just how much back and forth there is for a single project.

The key is to be your own boss and be disciplined. Set yourself realistic deadlines and get started early so you never leave anything to the last minute. It’s always better to give yourself a little more leeway because things you haven’t planned for always have a way of inevitably popping up. Maintain good files and archives so you can find your shit when you need it. Ask questions whenever you’re not sure. In fact, always ask a bunch of questions to clarify anything you’re not sure about right at the beginning. There’s nothing worse than a money dispute when you’re halfway through the work or at the very end. You need to be very clear on exactly what work you’re doing. I can’t believe how many times I’ve been duped by clients and friends into doing things I should not have done or accepting cases for much less money than I ought to have been paid. When someone says it’s a “proofreading” job, make sure it’s not actually “extensive editing” and “fact checking every line”. When someone says “editing”, make sure it’s not “completely rewriting everything”. I find the best course of action is (unless it’s someone you’ve worked with before and really trust) to always ask to see the work before you agree to do it or at least a sample. If they can’t show you anything in advance, make sure you give yourself some wriggle room in case you want to say no or extend the deadline later. Negotiating and dealing with clients a nuanced skill that develops over time with experience.

Up until recently, turning down work was always a problem for me. As most of my clients are relatively new, it’s hard for me to say no to them regardless of how busy I may be with other work. In this line of business, unless it’s a long-term client, if you say no once, chances are you will lose that client because they’ll just go with someone else and stick with that person thereafter. As a result, I would always end up with a full slate and then accept more work on top of that, leading to late nights and added stress, further compounding my health problems. Next year I will endeavour to take on no more than I can take. If I have to lose money because of that, then so be it. Health has to come first in 2017.

Some clients, no matter how good you are on your end, will always be hopeless. One of my oldest clients is a publication that is very famous but has not been relevant for quite some time. I’ve dealt with numerous people from that company, and with the exception of one responsible individual, all of them have been pathetic. Once, apart from an editor jumping in at the very end and butchering my work without any dialogue, they also published my name wrong on the freaking article. It would usually take 2 months to receive any money from them, but sometimes they would “forget” or send the wrong amount, and I would have to email and call them a bunch of times, create spreadsheets and graphs and all sorts of shit to explain to them what they did wrong and what they still owe me. The amount of time I spent on all the extracurricular stuff was probably more time than I spent on the actual work. And their employees are the type that would bombard you with emails and calls whenever they need something from you, but whenever you need something from them, they would ignore all calls and emails. I don’t mean temporarily, either. If you don’t chase them up, they’ll pretend you don’t exist. One time there was a particular employee who kept sending me the wrong files with unprofessional, incoherent emails, and laugh things off when I ended up wasting my time on work that didn’t need to be done or work I would have to rush to finish because she forgot to send it.

On the other hand, one of the best clients I’ve ever dealt with is a church in the US. I was a little wary of them at the start because they genuinely seem like a cult and are annoyingly polite, but once I got to know them a little better it was all smooth sailing. Apart from paying great, they outline clearly the work you have to do for them in an agreement and pay you half upfront. They respond to questions almost immediately and are flexible when you need to be. I love working with them. And they pray for me and bless me a lot.

Sometimes, however, things can turn sour with a client fairly quickly. Until last month, I kind of had a falling out with an old client, which happened early in the year. I undertook a tiring interpretation gig from them at a fixed price. It ran for five days on a set schedule, but when the sessions kept running over time, my contact person told me to jot down the actual session times and she will help me ask for more money if it gets excessive. Of course, it did get excessive in the end and I informed them as such, but it seemed my contact had made a promise before checking with her boss or they backed off their initial promise of paying more. Either way, it got a little awkward as they started making excuses and even suggested issues with my performance, though I had received nothing but praises up until the dispute arose. I didn’t push it in the end and was happy to put it behind us, but it was obvious my contact felt embarrassed by the incident and shied away from asking me to do more work for them. I did do work for their other departments, but for eight months (from March until November) I didn’t hear anything from my contact at all.

I still have a million more stories to tell about clients I’ve heard about, such as ones whose companies go bust or those who literally run off and hide. But I’ve got to go pack for my return flight. I’ve already got plenty of work waiting for me when I get back.

Oscars Adventure 2014

March 7, 2014 in Best Of, Entertainment, Movie Reviews, Reviews

The pre-planned surprise selfie

The pre-planned surprise selfie

It’s been a while since I posted and I’m still kinda tired (with you know, stuff), but it’s time to recap my Oscars adventures for 2014.

Like last year, I served as a consultant to one of the subtitling teams for the TV stations in Taiwan, which is a long day but always tons of fun. The Oscars screen in Taiwan during the day and are broadcast live, but only with live commentators doing their best to interpret whatever they can. The subtitling team (which does loads of preparation in advance) will frantically start translating the dialogue starting from the red carpet show so that the subtitles can be applied and ready for the prime time rerun later that evening.

It sounds relatively simple but is actually a lot of work because translations of names of films and nominees need to be uniform and consistent, and there are always plenty of things that don’t go according to script. People can talk really fast and mumble, acceptance speeches can be long and rambling (not to mention include a whole bunch of names that need to be verified), there might be short clips (or even long clips) they play throughout the evening which will have to be translated, and the jokes are always difficult especially if they use puns or touch on obscure cultural references. And of course, everything needs to be cross-checked and double-checked before the subtitles are placed onto the screen and synced to match the dialogue.

It’s quite incredible watching the team, which is packed with the country’s best (and trust me, they are, because I’ve seen some of its worst), power through like a well-oiled machine. On top of that everyone is incredibly nice, professional, and simply a lot of fun. I enjoyed the camaraderie we had, one fostered by a collegiate environment where everyone was working towards a common goal, and that’s to deliver the best product possible for the audience. Most viewers wouldn’t even have picked up on the little things that the team fretted over, but we challenged ourselves to get everything right, and if not, as close as we could.

This was about as far as Ellen would go

This was about as far as Ellen would go

This year’s production was much easier to subtitle than last year’s thanks to Ellen, who was a fairly “no frills” host in comparison to Seth MacFarlane, who filled his show with glitzy extravaganzas galore. Ellen’s opening monologue did not contain any prepared video footage, there were no singing and dancing numbers in the opening monologue or subsequently from the host, and even the majority of presenters stuck largely to the scripts we received in advance. Even the red carpet, which usually presents plenty of headaches, was relatively straightforward, with few mentions of those difficult-to-pronounce designer names. So apart from a couple of rambling, semi-incoherent acceptance speeches (Steve McQueen in particular for Best Picture), the night was a subtitler’s dream.

I haven’t really read up much on what people thought of the ceremony, though the sentiment among some of the people I spoke to was that it was a fairly boring night. Not that there was anything wrong with Ellen’s hosting, it was just that there were no spectacular set pieces and, more importantly, there were zero surprises. Apparently, according to the experts I spoke to, every single category was captured by the favourite.

I had a look at the predictions I put together a couple of days out before the ceremony and it turns out I didn’t do too badly. Considering I guessed the short/foreign film and documentary categories and went for a few upsets when I should have just stuck with the favourites, a total of 14/24 is I suppose passable.

As for the night itself, I actually really enjoyed it despite its supposed predictability and notable lack of flair. The red carpet was, as usual, filled with bad hosts (Tyson Beckford in particular) and painfully awkward and uncomfortable moments, though this year’s felt slightly better than last year’s for some reason. Maybe it was Jennifer Lawrence falling over again.

Ellen was her usual wry, funny self, but still maintained an air of formality and delivered a classy performance that Hollywood’s night of nights deserved. Sure, there was probably too much product placement (Samsung) and the pizza thing, while funny at first, went on for far too long, but I’d give Ellen a solid B+ for what is widely considered to be the toughest hosting gig there is.

I've let it go. Have you?

I’ve let it go. Have you?

I loved the music performances, in particular Pink’s surprising rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Karen O’s The Moon Song, though Adele Dazeem’s (sorry, I mean Idina Menzel’s) Let It Go had to be let go after she struggled from the very first note. The moving In Memoriam section was particular painful this year with the likes of Paul Walker, James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman all unexpectedly making the list, and Bette Midler’s ensuing Wind Beneath My Wings was arguably the most powerful moment of the evening.

jim carrey

The presenters were largely forgettable, with only Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx really standing out at all for me. Actually, Harrison Ford stood out as well, but for the wrong reasons. I was telling one of my colleagues during the day that it’s rather amazing, given how many ridiculously talented writers there are in Hollywood, that the dialogue they come up with for Oscars presenters is almost always lame. My clever colleague speculated, probably correctly, that the writers felt they couldn’t be too clever or witty because they were pitching to such a wide audience, meaning they were likely targeting the pedestrian middle crowd. On top of that, there’s always the fear of being controversial or politically incorrect, so in the end we’re left with dialogue that’s effectively benign but also uninteresting.

And if you think about it, who can really blame them? Every idiot with a Twitter account has got an opinion these days. I mean, seriously, criticizing Jared Leto’s win because he’s not a real transsexual and for not thanking the transgender community in his speech, or labelling Ellen as “transphobic” for her Liza Minnelli impersonator joke? Come on.

lupita

As for the acceptance speeches, the highlight has to be the elegant and moving speech from Lupita Nyong’o, with the lowlight of course coming from the insufferable Matthew McConaughey, whose victory will surely take his Texan smugness to a whole new level. That said, I have to give credit where it’s due — Mr “Alright Alright Alright” is having a killer of a time as of late with a slate of great performances in solid-to-great films such as The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and of course, Dallas Buyers Club.

I predicted correctly that 12 Years a Slave would win Best Picture, but let’s face it, Gravity should have won, especially after Alfonso Cuaron rightfully took home the Best Director gong. What is it about sci-fi flicks that scares off voters? And one other thing — Spike Jones, won for Best Original Screenplay, really should have gotten a nomination for directing as well for his phenomenal work in Her. But unfortunately, he was squeezed out because the decision to nominate 9 films for Best Picture instead of 5 means 4 very deserving directors will miss out every year. And that’s just wrong.

In all, one of the better Oscar nights in the last few years, and a great, albeit exhausting, day for me as well. I hope to do it again next year.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 8: In Awe of the Translators

November 17, 2012 in China, Travel

The young lady on the right

November 13

I’ve pretty much settled into a daily routine in Beijing, though it hasn’t been particularly fun with all the shrinkage and itchy skin caused the freezing weather (though locals tell me this is nothing compared to the ‘real winter’). There hasn’t been much except a lot of writing, a lot of researching and a lot of conferences and travelling. I’ve also attended a function or two for journalists, but it’s not exactly my idea of a good night out. I prefer to spend my free time resting or on Skype with my family.

My post today is about the translators at the 18th National Congress, who have continued to blow my mind every day thus far. All the sessions open to the press are of course in Chinese, but most of them have an English translator who does immediate translations all the way through without missing half a step.

I’ve done a little translation work myself so I know how hard it is, but these Chinese-English translators are like machines. Actually, I doubt there are machines that can do what they do. Even if I had the script and a dictionary in front of me with all the time in the world I doubt I could translate it as well as they do, and they do it on the spot and under pressure!

What is even more impressive is that most of these people look really young, but they are all so poised. The party official can ramble on for a couple of minutes before they get a chance to translate, and yet they don’t even break a sweat. They just listen intently, jot down a few notes (I assume in shorthand), and provide seamless translations whenever they need to.

I know what you’re thinking — perhaps they had the official’s script in advance and had already translated it. Yes, I have no doubt that is the case with the opening speeches, but that’s not possible during question time, when reporters ask multi-part questions and the officials give long, winding answers that can sometimes go for 10 minutes or more (all up). Yet, there are no long pauses, no stutters, no “ums” and no mistakes. None. Not a single word out of place.

How is it possible that so many of these young people can get so good at both languages? What is amazing to me is that most of them don’t sound very fluent in English because of their pronunciation and accents, and yet their vocabulary, comprehension and ability to articulate sentences are better than most native speakers. Are they, like those Chinese gymnasts, forced into training from infancy? Have they been told that their entire family will “disappear” if they make a mistake? Are they secret Chinese government experiments?

I don’t know how they do it, but I am in awe.

PS: Also kudos to all the foreign journalists who ask questions in Chinese. Takes a lot of skill and guts.