Surprises I’ve Encountered in My Writing Career

from iClipArt

from iClipArt

1. When you’re publishing what you write, someone, somewhere will read it, and someone can be affected by it. This seems obvious, but when you first start writing, it’s usually for yourself. And this usually goes on long enough that it’s easy to forget anyone might ever read your words. Years later, you get a job writing for publication, and suddenly everything you type could land in front of someone’s face. When I got my first job as a reporter at The Daily Pilot — a local newspaper in Newport Beach, Calif. — I got a major lesson in how much power words could have. I wrote four stories per day about the local government and other goings-on, and I usually encountered the people I wrote about time and time again, in my professional life as well as at the grocery store (because I lived near work). Even though I was a 21-year-old barely able to figure out her own life, I suddenly had the power to do some serious damage — or good — to the careers of grown, extremely wealthy people. (Newport is one of the nation’s richest towns; see The O.C. for a fairly accurate dramatization.) This was quite stressful, but a great lesson.

2. Editors aren’t necessarily judging whether your writing is “good” or not when they make changes; they are just making your writing fit their publication. Of course, some of their edits really do make your writing better. I’ve learned a lot from great editors over my career. But just because they change something doesn’t mean it was “wrong,” once you’ve gotten past basic spelling and grammar fixes. Often they’re simply imposing their magazine or website’s style onto your piece. And a lot of publications have quite distinct voices that wouldn’t fly at other publications; editors at, say, The New Yorker would not put up with the most perfect Entertainment Weekly piece. (That’s not a slam on my former employer, just a fact.) Similarly, a Cosmo piece wouldn’t fly at Vogue. Or vice versa.

3. Good ideas don’t automatically mean sales. This is so disappointing, I know! I still kinda refuse to believe it, even as I write it now. Magazine and website editors aren’t often looking for “good” ideas in the same sense that writers tend to think of “good” ideas. I think interesting or important is good. Magazine editors have a bunch of other concerns: whether the idea reflects the idealized version of their demographic that they sell to advertisers; whether readers will think they “want” to read about a given topic; whether it will put their readers in a pleasant enough mood to buy advertisers’ products; and biggest of all, whether the headline they use to sell the story on the cover is “surprising” enough. (They also like things with numbers, and things that are “new,” as in: “57 New Ways to Get Great Abs” or whatever. Whether they’re really new, and there are really 57, is less important.) This applies, alas, even to book editors: They are marketers at least as much as they are literary mavens. They have to keep the money coming in. If they don’t like an idea, it is more likely to be from a marketing standpoint than a “good” standpoint. It’s a hard truth, but necessary to swallow if you want to make a living.

4. “Bad” for one might be “good” for another. The saving grace here? Just because one editor, publication, or publisher rejects something doesn’t mean it won’t work somewhere else. Sell it somewhere else. Take it where it’s wanted.

On Procrastination in Writing

procrastinationA huge portion of my “writing process” is procrastinating. If I have something really big due, I basically have to build in time to put it off. I clean, I organize, I work on other stuff that isn’t as pressing. Then, finally, when I absolutely must, and/or when I have run out of all other things to do, I write.

This is bizarre behavior. But it is not uncommon among writers.

Megan McArdle wrote a piece for The Atlantic showing how common this is among professional writers. Though she theorizes that it’s a fear of failure that drives us to procrastinate, which doesn’t totally ring true to me. That’s never really been a thing for me. I have plenty of hangups, but that’s just not one of them. In fact, my 20s are a testament to my willingness to wallow in failure.

I don’t think there’s a concrete explanation beyond this: Writing is hard. Writing a first draft of anything is hard. You start with a blank page, and then you have to make something of it. We tend to put off complicated tasks in favor of easier ones. Cleaning the apartment doesn’t look that great when compared with watching another episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. But it looks great compared with writing an entire chapter. We know it doesn’t even end with writing the chapter, because first drafts suck. There will still be revision and editing.

If you’re feeling badly about your own procrastination, and/or need a way to procrastinate right now, enjoy this list of weird stuff some authors throughout history have done to procrastinate. Then get to work already.

How I Earn My Money

moneyI wrote a bit about the finances behind my book deals yesterday. People seemed to appreciate this more than I realized they would; this only proves how rare it is for writers, in particular, to talk about money. Perhaps it makes us feel that our “art” is somehow less pure if we corrupt it with the idea that we’re doing it for pay. But I like doing this for a living, and that means I have to make money at it. It also means I do a better job of it because I can spend my work days making nice articles and books for people, instead of cramming it in between profitable ventures.

To that end, I thought it might help if I shared an overview of where some of my freelance, non-book money comes from. In the first three months of 2015, this is about how it’s broken down:

Online recaps of TV shows (a regular, if not terribly high-paying, profit center for pop culture writers): $1,000

Teaching, both for Gotham Writers Workshops and my own one-on-one clients: $2,000

Short pieces for various online outlets: $1,200

A gigantic special project for a major magazine (I basically wrote an entire stand-alone issue): $8,000

This was an unusually profitable period because of that project. Those are the sorts of things that keep freelancers going. They also cannot be counted upon, so I need to make that money work for me for the next few months.

Fellow freelancers, feel free to share some of your biggest (or smallest) income-generators in the comments below! We can all learn from each other.

The Economics of Book Deals

moneyWhen I wrote about my own experience going freelance in my Ultimate Guide to Starting a Freelance Writing Business, I mentioned the specific development that allowed me to quit my day job: a six-figure book advance. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the mechanics of book advances/the state of the publishing industry in that post, which was long and involved enough. That said, a freelancer friend wisely pointed out that I might want to explain that further, in case anyone’s reading that and thinking, “Oh, okay! I’ll just get a six-figure book advance then.” There are a number of reasons that I could think this was a reasonable expectation for me at that time (and these reasons, not coincidentally, double as a list of ways I was lucky):

1. We are talking about the lowest end of “six figures.” (I feel like I’m supposed to be coy about this, but you get my drift.)

2. I had made this much for my first book, Why? Because We Still Like You. This was pure luck. I got this book as an “assignment”; Grand Central Publishing was looking for someone to write a book about the original Mickey Mouse Club. I had written a lot about current Disney Channel stars while working at Entertainment Weekly. An agent I was working with then heard they needed someone and put me forward for it. I got the gig. Their budget was pre-set at something like $80K and my agent talked them up a bit.

3. The book that allowed me to quit my job was Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. It was sold on auction, which means that publishers were competing for it, which drives the price up. Many, though not all, of the other offers were very low. I would not have been able to quit my job on those offers. I actually didn’t know what I was going to do if that was as high as we went, because I really did not want to write this book while holding a full-time job. Working at EW was incredibly demanding at this point because we’d laid lots of people off and were trying to feed the web beast. And I wanted to do a great job on the book. So this was a total gamble. We ended up with a few big publishers wanting it in hardcover in the end, though, which is crucial for an advance this large. Luckily, I really liked the two highest bidders, and the absolute highest was Jon Karp, the publisher at Simon & Schuster, who turns out to be a huge Mary Tyler Moore Show fan. This was a no-brainer. (In further lucky news, he ended up editing my book himself, which was an invaluable experience for me.)

4. In conclusion, this was a Cinderella story and not a sure thing.

I think there are a few specific lessons that you, as a person who is not me, and who is possibly considering a similar career path, can take from my experience:

1. Non-fiction tends to sell better than fiction. There’s more of it, and more demand for it, no matter what your pre-conceived picture of an “author” is. It’s also less dependent on you as a name and more dependent on subject matter. Which brings us to …

2. My solo books have all been about TV shows. This makes them more dependent on the show as a brand name and less dependent on me.

3. That said, I have a pretty strong “platform” for writing about this stuff, thanks to having spent ten years at a national magazine covering television. Not only do they trust that I can pull it off, but they also know I have connections who can help spread the word about the book in the right places.

4. In contrast to all of the above, for instance, the book I co-authored with Heather Wood Rudúlph, Sexy Feminism, sold for much, much less. It was meant for a young, female audience, so it made sense to go paperback-only. Furthermore, it had no built-in hook like a very popular television show. I loved doing this book, but it was not the reason I could quit my job. I’m told this is a much more normal experience; I’ve often heard $10K-$20K for a book is the best most people can expect, especially for a first book.

I hope this helps anyone pondering books as a “money-making” option. Also keep in mind that for non-fiction, advances are doled out in halves, thirds, or fourths, usually over a couple of years between signing the deal and publishing the book. So even what sounds like a lot at first isn’t that much. Keep all of this in mind as you ponder quitting your day job.

If anyone has questions (that I can answer) about any of this, let me know!

Ultimate Guide to Setting Up a Freelance Writing Business

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from iClipArt

I switched from being a staffer at Entertainment Weekly (where I worked for almost ten years) to being a freelance writer in 2011. Believe it or not, I had dreamed of being specifically a freelancer since I was a little girl. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I loved the library. I spent a lot of afternoons there looking up stuff that interested me in the card catalog, then reading all I could about it. When I read books about writing, I learned the word freelance. I was 8. I thought it sounded so wonderful: Freedom! A lance! Writing! So when I was finally able to make the transition 27 years later, the move was long overdue.

I made the transition as I do most things: responsibly, and with a lot of forethought. And yet I also made lots of mistakes along the way, and found that the transition was even harder than I had expected. I hope I can share a few of the things I’ve learned so I can help others who share my love of freelancing and my aversion to avoidable mistakes.

This Ultimate Guide is for people genuinely considering going full-time, for-real with their freelance writing. Freelance writing can be a great little side gig for some pocket money, and/or a lovely hobby. But what is below will help those who want to make it their main life’s work. The first thing you need to do is realize that this is a business. When you become a freelancer, you become a CEO of a one-person company. You must start acting like it. You will have bills to collect and bills to pay and marketing to do. You must take all of these things seriously. You aren’t just some artiste for whom the rest will just fall into place. That was advice I got when I first started, and it was critical.

So. Let’s do this. This guide is organized by subject area, with some Q&A format thrown in occasionally — me answering some questions I got when I asked for them in a previous post. If you have other questions that aren’t answered here, leave them in the comments, and I’ll add them in (with answers!) when I can. Let’s start with a question, since this one is a great place to start.

Q: I’d like to know more about the transition from part time freelance work to full time writing. Like… when would a writer leap from “don’t quit your day job” to “I totally quit my day job!”? (from Chrissy Layton)

A: I’ll share my experience first, then add some thoughts based on what I know of other successful freelancers. I’m not the best with money, so I wanted to make sure I had some sort of safety net in place before making the leap from regular paycheck to … not. So my plan was to sell a nonfiction book, and I had a minimum price in mind that would allow me to quit my job. I had written one book at the time, and I had done that while holding down a full-time job, and I swore I’d never do that again. (I wanted a personal life.) But I also felt like I needed a six-figure deal, given that it would be broken up into thirds and dispersed over a year or two of payments. (When you sell a book on proposal, there are various methods of payout, but mine is fairly common: I get a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance, and a third on publication.) The point of all this is to say that I did get the deal I wanted, so at least I knew I’d have some five-figure checks to count on showing up at certain points. (Please see this post for a further exploration of why I could think this was a reasonable price to expect.) These would allow for a solid eight months or so of living expenses to give me a running start; during that time, I hoped I could build my business up enough that I could keep going. So far it has worked, though with a few pretty dire dips in income. We can talk about that a little later.

I do know others who make it work without book deals from major publishers. The most basic advice I usually hear from them is similar to the book deal idea, from a different angle; they like to have at least one “regular” gig. This is a client that uses them consistently, usually with some kind of commitment: say, an actual contract to pay you a certain amount per month for a certain amount of work, or a regular column. One of the most impressive freelancers I know is Jen A. Miller, who has been making it work for ten years now. Check out her website; she sometimes writes about freelancing. (She also gave me a bunch of great advice when I was still struggling.)

So, bottom line: Get some regular stuff lined up that you can count on. Or save an absolute ton of money before you make the leap.

MAKING YOURSELF A WEBSITE
Yes, you need one. Start one right now here on WordPress, or on Tumblr, or wherever else the kids are making websites these days. I can attest that it is absurdly easy to do on something like WordPress. Just follow the step-by-step instructions and you can have your own site in minutes. For real. Don’t whine to me about how you’re not tech-savvy. You’ll pick out a little template design and fill in your name and boom. You’ll be legit.
Don’t stress too much about what you’re going to put on your website if you don’t have lots of ideas. I actually started this one just to have an online list of my work, like so, mainly to make my pitches a little easier. (This helped by putting all of my best work in one place, easy to link to.) I added elements as they made sense. An “About Me” page is an obvious place to begin. You might want to include a page geared toward potential clients, explaining what services you offer (corporate writing? ad copy? blogging on a specific subject?). A contact page is pretty key. (How else can they get in touch if they want to hire you?) You may or may not wish to start blogging on the subjects you plan to specialize in.
Q: What I can do to make myself appealing to potential employers? (from sahmoun2778)

Get experience! That’s seriously the whole game when it comes to being a published writer. You need what we call “clips,” which we call them because in the olden days we actually clipped out our little pieces and kept them in little scrapbooks and made copies of them to send out with our query letters. Now it’ll just be links to your published work in an e-mail query letter (more on that below). You need clips. Get as much work as you can when you’re starting out so that you can show it to potential clients. This usually means working for free or very cheap for smaller websites and publications. Find a website that takes submissions but doesn’t have the budget to pay writers; you come in to save the day, and you get a nice clip out of the deal. When I ran SexyFeminist.com, we often worked with inexperienced writers; we didn’t mind giving them the extra editing help, given that we had no money to pay them. This allows you to get real experience and samples of your work so you can eventually move up to the bigger places that pay better. I’m also a fan of local newspapers (or news websites), if you can find them. They’re a dying breed, but I started my career at local newspapers and got invaluable experience. Those were the worst, most stressful years of my life, but I’m glad I did it now. I haven’t been clip-less since I was 17. And if they let a 17-year-old wearing her mother’s clothes work for them, they’ll probably let you.

PICKING A SPECIALTY
Part of why I wanted to be a freelance writer was the free part: specifically, the freedom to write about whatever I want. The fact is, though, that you can write about whatever you want whenever you want, as long as you’re not expecting to get paid for it. If you want to make money, on the other hand, picking a specialty can help. I have interests beyond pop culture. But people are far more likely to think of me when they need a pop culture story than any other subject. I am an expert, and part of why they’re hiring me is my expertise. I know things they don’t. I offer something of value.
Having a specialty also simplifies your life. You’ll spend less time writing about stuff you know well. Time = money in freelancer world. The quicker you can do an assignment, the more you’re making (per hour/minute/second).
First, a caveat: choosing a niche is not like choosing a major. You’re not stuck with it and only it for the rest of your time as a freelancer, and you don’t have to choose it before you start writing. But it’s good to at least ponder as you come up with your first story ideas. When you’re thinking about your subject matter, consider, of course, what you have experience in. Is there something related to your current or former full-time job that would be worth writing about? (If you have business acumen, the world could definitely use more smart business writers. If you know tech, there’s endless demand for smart tech reporting these days.) Are you a serious hobbyist in an area that could become a writing niche? (Maybe you’re musical and could write about music — an interest you could refine much further: Will you write about your local music scene? Pop music? Music education? Music gear? Opera?) Think, too, about demand. My business and tech examples would probably fare better than my music example. There are more writers who’d like to write about music than about tech, because writers tend to be more artsy than business savvy (alas). I’m not saying you should choose only based on the market. But if you find yourself choosing between tech and music, for instance, maybe choose tech. The good news: Once you start pitching stories that interest you, often a niche will present itself over time. You’ll start to see that people are mostly hiring you to write about, say, women in tech. Then that becomes your niche. I actually spent some time running a group of home decor trade magazines before ending up as a pop culture writer. My niche could have gone a different way. I write outside my niche once in a while even now, so you’re not doomed to stay in your niche forever. You’ll just likely find easier success there. I like this post by John Soares about how he has two major niches: outdoor writing and higher-education writing. He has a whole course just on picking your niche.
Specializing applies not only to the subject matter you choose, but also to the kind of writing you do. Of course most of us dabble in a few types of writing; I’d say I’m about articles with a side of blogging and essays. (Plus books, of course.) You could also write web content, marketing copy, reports, business plans, press releases, or something else. I once wrote some marketing copy and it was so fun, but I had to figure it all out from scratch. Someone who had done it a million times before would be better and quicker at it.

Q: I would like to know which websites are the best for finding freelance work. (from sahmoun2778)

A: I don’t love this method of finding freelance work, but it can do in a pinch or if you’re just starting out. The one place I’ve found work that paid decently and didn’t end up being some sketchy gig is Mediabistro. It’s worth the small membership fee to join. There’s also an amazing section called How to Pitch that I will talk a bit more about later. I did dabble with Elance, which requires that you sign up, then sends you jobs that match your skills; it seemed decent, though every time they sent me something I was swamped with higher-paying work. (I know, high-class problem. Funny how this never happened when I was desperate!) All the others I’ve tried — when I was desperate and just searching for anything to fill my bank account — didn’t pan out. That said, I haven’t tried this a lot or consistently, so if people have had good luck somewhere, feel free to let us know where in the comments.

Also, FreelanceWritersOnline has a terrific list with pros and cons for each, suggesting they’ve done some serious investigation.

WRITING YOURSELF A BUSINESS PLAN
I mentioned the importance of treating your freelance writing like a business. For that, you need a business plan. I have made one every year since I started. Did everything go as planned? Of course not. But you need to be thinking way farther ahead than just the day-to-day, which can consume you as a freelance writer. (Must make deadline, must send out invoices, must nap.) This isn’t that hard, and it can be really inspiring. It gives you a sense of possibility. Here’s what’s in mine:
Vision: This is my overall idea for the year. It’s easy to get stuck in churning out the same old stuff. Here I try to see how I can elevate my game in the next year. What kind of hours do I want to work? How much vacation do I want to give myself? Which parts of my business do I want to expand? Do I want to sell another book? Are there types of assignments I want to do that I haven’t been doing, or publications I want to set my sights on?
Financial goals: This year, for instance, I want to start a retirement plan, put away a bit more in savings, and pay for some trips. I list these and how much they might cost so that I know what I’m working for. I set an earning goal for the year and break that down into quarterly and monthly goals.
Clients I want to target: Pretty obvious. A list of places I’m not writing for and might want to.
Clients I want to keep: Also obvious. Just a reminder of who my highest-paying and most consistent outlets are.
Ideas for streamlining: Do you want to try to outsource some tasks, like transcription?
Financial projections: Using my previous year’s figures, and my plans, I estimate what might be reasonable to expect making from various parts of my business. Your first year, you won’t have figures from previous years to work with, so do your best to estimate using whatever you do have — maybe you know how much you’ve previously made from freelancing on the side, or you have one set, regular client paying a specific amount already.
Goals: I make a list of specific goals for the year. This might range from pitching more to my current, best clients to joining a professional organization to selling a new book.

PITCHING

You’re going to start out doing a lot of this. I want to break it down to the basics.

One way you get assignments, especially when you’re first starting out, is to pitch your ideas to editors who might want to buy them. This often serves as a kind of “audition” for writing for the publication. When you’re more experienced, you’ll still want to pitch sometimes; you might be getting more direct assignments from editors (i.e. they say, “we need someone to interview so-and-so, will you do it?”), but it’s fun to execute your own ideas sometimes. This happens with a pitch letter. Really, these days, almost universally, a pitch e-mail.

How do you make one of those? Here’s a step-by-step guide:

1. Study publications. Narrow your targets down to just a few perfect places where your pitch might be at home. Do not send out a form letter to 55 publications. They’ll notice. Aim for three to five, tops. Hone each pitch to that individual publication. Even within certain categories, every publication is different. A Glamour pitch about, say, in-vitro fertilization is different from a Cosmo pitch about IVF, which is different from a Marie Claire pitch about IVF. If you don’t see the differences, it’s not the right category for you, or you need to study more.

2. Figure out whom to contact at each of your targets. Some publications, especially smaller websites, have very thorough instructions about contributing right there on the site for anyone to see. Follow their instructions. Others, especially bigger publications, can be tougher to crack. First, I recommend sending to a real human whenever possible (as opposed to editor@gq.com or whatever). Second, if you can’t figure out the exact right editor (i.e. you have a health-related pitch and they have a person called the “health editor”), maybe just pick one who sounds nice. Seriously. It’s better to get it to the wrong human, who can send it to the right human, than to send it to a generic account no one of consequence every checks. Aim for the middle of the masthead (that page where they list the staff) if it’s a large staff. (In other words, don’t send it to the absolute top editor, who’s often more of a figurehead than a day-to-day editor, and don’t send it to an assistant. People like “senior editor” or “features editor” or “articles editor” are often good bets.)

Don’t worry, there are some great resources to help guide you through some of this. The classic is Writers’ Market, which has been around since the dawn of time in book form and is now available online as a database. Of course, you have to pay a small fee. But it is extremely comprehensive, even if its listings are fairly brief. You’ll get a little info on the publication and some kind of contact.

I absolutely love Mediabistro’s How to Pitch. I mentioned this before. You have to sign up to get this part of the site, but it’s so worth it. The listings aren’t as comprehensive as Writers’ Market — they don’t have every single publication here — but they are quite in-depth. For each publication included, Mediabistro actually interviews the editor most likely to take freelance submissions, and gleans all kinds of detailed information — what they’re looking for, what they hate, which sections are best for newcomers, what specific freelance articles they’ve accepted recently. They also usually include the pay rate and, miraculously, the e-mails for the appropriate editors.

3. Now write your pitch.

This follows a basic formula. It usually goes something like this:

LEDE PARAGRAPH: An attention-getting way into your subject, similar to what you might write as the first paragraph of the actual piece.

NUTGRAF: An overview of your story. Why should we care about this? Why now? Why is this right for this audience?

PROPOSAL PARAGRAPH: How will you execute this story? Whom will you interview? How many words do you envision? Which section do you think it’s right for?

YOU PARAGRAPH: A brief bio. Emphasize your qualifications for this particular topic, as well as your writing experience. Mention that you’re including links to your published work below. Include those after your sign-off.

SIGN OFF. INSERT CLIPS. SEND.

Here is a pitch I recently wrote that resulted in an assignment for Mental Floss. Please note that I know this editor personally, so I get a little casual toward the end — I didn’t have to send her my clips or sell her on the idea of me.

Hi Abbey —
I’m a chronic Googler of almost all problems in my life, so I inevitably run into WikiHow with some frequency. (“How to Hard-Boil an Egg,” “3 Ways to Cure the Common Cold Naturally,” “How to Be Like Beyoncé” … I’ll take them all.) What has struck me, however, is that, unlike, say, “Yahoo Answers,” WikiHow is often dead-on, thorough, and helpful, even if it’s written as if explaining the world to an alien. (From How to Edit a Book, step 1: “Find something to edit. To edit a book, first you need to either write the book or get a book you want to edit.”) The How to Be Sophisticated is startlingly on-point, with advice about posture, haircuts, grooming, fashion (scarves are key), and conversation topics (museums, good wine, and travel are go-tos). I was shocked when I looked at How to Become a Writer and realized that if you did every one of the steps mentioned, you really would be in great shape (and probably wouldn’t need to take any of my or anyone else’s writing classes). Oh, and the animations, with their dreamy pastel colors, are gorgeous and distinctive. I’ve been threatening to make How to Become a Writer into a poster for my office, and there is a Twitter feed dedicated just to WikiHow art appreciation.
I thought it would be fun to do something on how WikiHow works, perhaps similar to your recent piece, “19 Secrets of UPS Drivers.” WikiHow now has nearly 200,000 entries (including such gems as: How to Make a Goldfish Live for Decades and How to Break Up With Your Boyfriend If You Are in Love With Him) and is seeking more on some of the craziest topics you can imagine (How to Drill a Hole in a Glass Bottle …?). They are currently building versions in 13 languages and are read by a million readers per month. They’re still headquartered in a house in Palo Alto. And WikiHow is still entirely funded by its founder, Jack Herrick, instead of Venture Capitalists.
I would love to talk to the folks at WikiHow HQ as well as some of the writers of the weirdest/most popular/best entries about why they do this, how they became “experts” in these things, how entries are policed, how the editing process works, and how the illustrations come together. This girl, for instance, has created 108 entries (How to Paint a Rock Using Toothpicks, How to Make a Monkey out of Clay …). As you can probably guess, they’re not paid, so something special is driving these folks. I could also put together a few WikiHows of my own to explore the process further.
Let me know if this is something you’d be into; I’m happy to reach out to a few of them to suss out some details if you’d like.
Thanks,
Jennifer
4. Follow up. I usually wait at least a week unless it’s a time-sensitive topic. All you need is a quick, “Just checking to make sure you got this” e-mail. Don’t call. No one wants calls in the 21st Century.
5. Hang in there. You’ll get rejected most of the time. You’ll be ignored, which means they’re rejecting you and not even bothering to tell you. This will continue to happen no matter how great your credentials are. If this upsets you, consider not being a freelance writer.

Q: Besides cold queries/submissions how can a writer connect with publishers — i.e. blogs, talks, workshops, etc.? (from BajaMotoQuest)

First, I want to mention that queries can be a way of connecting. I mean, in the obvious way, sure: You ask them if you can write this story for them, and they miraculously say yes. But as I said above, I like to think of queries as more of an audition. You’re showing them you can think like their publication and write in their voice. If they like your query enough, they may invite you to pitch them again even if they have to reject that specific idea. I’ve spent years courting some magazines this way, before eventually either getting an assignment or finally landing a pitch. (Glamour, O, and Women’s Health worked for me this way.)

But you’re right to be wary of this method. It sounds magical — send off your ideas, and boom! you’re suddenly published! — because it is, in the sense that it is so rarely successful. Having personal connections to editors before pitching makes all the difference. The vast majority of my work comes from editors who used to be my coworkers at Entertainment Weekly. The second most likely source of work for me? People I mentored who are now far enough along in their careers to commission me to write for them. Personal connection is everything. Some ideas for making those connections:

1. Online networking. A lot of people are skeptical of this, but I believe in it. I’ve made several real, meaningful connections this way. You need to build it organically, though: commenting regularly on someone’s blog, sharing their posts, possibly dropping them a complimentary note via email if that seems right. You can use Facebook’s feeling of community to connect on a personal level, enough that you eventually feel you can direct-message the editor and ask about pitching. (One friend-of-a-friend and I found ourselves routinely “liking” each other’s comments, saying the same things, and laughing at the same stuff. We became “real” virtual friends. I didn’t even realize she was an editor. Then one day when I posted about looking for freelance work, she invited me to pitch her.) Same goes for Twitter: If you can become genuine buddies there, and you’ve had several exchanges, a “cold” pitch to that person is no longer cold.

2. Talks and workshops. I love this idea! I teach and give talks, and I never mind if someone figures out a way to get in touch afterwards. Again, start with a complimentary note and ask if you can join this person’s mailing list or somesuch. Follow him or her online. Then, over time, it could feel right to pitch that person.

3. Readings. This is slightly different from the talk/workshop idea, but it’s one I always mention to my students. If there are smallish literary readings in your area, go to them. Not the big blockbuster ones, like Stephen King at Barnes and Noble. More like mid-list authors at local indie bookstores and bars. Here’s why this can work, especially in a media-heavy town. (I admit, it probably works best in New York, but a Seattle or Chicago might do.) The same people are always going to readings. We are sick of them. We groan, at least inwardly, when we realize we have to go to another one. All of our friends are always having damn readings, and all the same people will be there. We are so excited if someone new shows up! We welcome this. And many of us weary souls happen to be writers, agents, and editors, because we all hang around each other. You won’t likely leave with a major assignment. But if you play your cards right and make some friends — definitely go to the party at the nearby bar afterwards! — you will come away with friends. Nice, literary friends. Nice, literary friends who can publish your work or know someone who can.

I’d like to note these all work best as long games. No one likes the person who shows up at the reading or the talk or the class with a manuscript to shove in the talker/teacher/reader’s face. We are generally paid for our services, and, no, dear total stranger, we would not like to read your manuscript unless a check is attached. If you become our genuine friends, however, we may, in the long-term, be more than happy to help you. You have to earn your way in, though. Think of ways you can help the person in question, even if it’s small stuff like helping spread the word about his or her next independently published chapbook.

We’ll next tackle subject that couldn’t be more crucial to freelancing (alas) …

SURVIVING DROUGHTS

I’d love to tell you that my drought days behind me, but I still have them. In fact, I just survived one that ended yesterday with a giant check in the mail. (Naturally, the other past-due checks have now begun rolling in, too, when I don’t need them nearly as much anymore.) You will have ups and downs, financially, no matter what you do. Your regular gigs will disappear with a switch of editors or a closing magazine. Your checks will never show up as quickly as they’re supposed to. I read it a thousand times between when I first learned the word freelance and when I actually became a freelancer: You will have ups and downs. I understood it. I prepared for it. I prepared so much that I wrote an entire book proposal and sold a book and refused to quit my day job unless I sold it for enough. And yet I still don’t think I fully comprehended how down those downs could be. So I’m going to say it a few more times, and you’re still not going to totally get it, but you may get a tiny bit closer. Ups and downs. Ups and downs. Ups and downs. They are very, very real, and they will keep happening. For real. Did you get that? Ups and downs. Most importantly, downs.

My first advice is to think about your love life. Yes, that’s sort-of a joke, but sort-of not. Are you single? That’s awesome, and you are fabulous, but this is definitely a con of single life: You have no backup system. You have freedom, and the ability to eat cheese and crackers for dinner for a week, and the sense not to settle down with just anyone. But you do not, my friend, have a backup financial system. You’re going to have to plan even better than the cohabitators. It is not an exaggeration to say that my first big freelancing down expedited my partner and I moving in together and becoming official “domestic partners.” (It was before Obamacare, and my COBRA was also ending, so insurance was a priority.) I’m not saying get married just so you can freelance, but you need to be aware of what your situation is. And if you are coupled, you should probably have a talk with your partner about what your freelancing will mean. How will you handle the down parts? We have something of a “lending” system in place, and percentages of living expenses calculated by the relative amounts we make. Is it romantic? Not intrinsically, no. But I think not killing each other over money is super romantic. Figure out whatever works for you.

You’ll also have to figure out how much you need to make per month to live. It can be helpful to break these amounts down into weekly, daily, and hourly amounts. This way you always know, ideally, what you need to make for an assignment to be truly worth it. You’ll also know when you’re falling behind, and what you need to do to make it up. The brilliant Seth Godin says you need to make twice as much as a freelancer as you’re comfortable making at a full-time job. Keep this in mind.

Maybe you’ll want to consider side jobs on occasion. I’ve known people who had “secret” freelance gigs writing pharmaceutical catalog copy, writing other boring corporate stuff, working at bookstores. I don’t really consider teaching and coaching “side jobs,” but they’re not writing, and they have saved my bank account many times.

Be prepared for the down times. Figure out what makes you feel better during those times. I get really, really dark because I feel so out of control of my life. I feel like I’m working and working and working with no reward, and this makes me despondent. It’s not pretty. If you know yoga or meditation or exercise or reading or walking or skiing or knitting or whatever helps you when you’re in a funk, reach for that when you see a downturn approaching. Those checks will show up. I swear. I started to think mine wouldn’t. Then they always did.

Which brings us to …

ASKING FOR MONEY

This is my second-least-favorite part of freelancing. Sometimes it feels just short of panhandling. Sometimes I wonder if panhandling is more efficient. Here are the times you’ll need to ask for money:

1. When you first get the assignment. Yes, as soon as they say they want something from you, get the price straight. It’s not impolite to ask. You need to know upfront so that: a. You can turn it down if it’s too low; and b. You can know what your efforts are worth. Of course you want everything you write to be a sparkling jewel. But when the chips are down and you have to prioritize assignments, the $8,000 one is going to get more attention than the $50 one. If editors want more attention, they need to pay more. If the $50 one doesn’t like this, they should have thought about that when they decided to pay freelancers $50.

2. When your editor asks you for too much work for the price. This can feel so uncomfortable because everyone wants to pretend to be making art. In the best scenario, it’ll turn out that way. But I’ve had more than one editor who essentially tried to sneak a piece from an 800-word, one-source story to a 1500-word, seven-source story. Sure, the more words and sources would make the work “better,” and we all want “better.” But my bank account wants better, too, then. You can say these things nicely, like, “This seems to go beyond the scope of what we originally discussed for the price.” But you should say something. You’ll most likely get at least a little more. Be warned: This has burned bridges for me, too. I don’t really mind them being burned, though. They were cheap. No one was hurt.

3. When it’s time to collect. Yay, your piece is in and edited! Make sure to follow up and file all the necessary paperwork. Just email them and ask what they need from you to process payment. Easy.

4. When it’s really time to collect. Okay, you did all of that, and you filed all that crazy paperwork more than a month ago, and still no check. It’s follow-up time! Drop them a line and inquire as to the status of your payment; I usually soften this with some business about making sure it didn’t get lost and/or there isn’t any other paperwork they need from me.

5. No, seriously, you’re living on peanut butter over here, you have three bills past due, and for some reason the multi-national corporation can’t manage to send you the couple hundred bucks they owe you, even though you sent your invoice three months ago. If you haven’t done this already, make sure you find the actual person who is closest to the actual cutting of the check. Editors are usually just middlemen here. They take your invoice and forward it to some person in accounting they’ve never met, then hope everything is magically resolved. You need to trace that chain of command back to whoever gets the job done. I did some of this last week, and it was miraculous. They were apologetic and sent me the official confirmation they get from, like, the machine that prints the checks, as soon as they got it.

Finally, here’s some bonus advice from my friend and colleague Bob Sassone, who has been freelancing for 30 years (basically his whole career):

Don’t be afraid to get another job, even a non-writing one, while building your career. A lot of people think they’re not a “real” writer if they don’t write full-time, which is a bad way to think. There’s nothing romantic about being a poor writer.

Spell the editor’s name right, be nice, and get your articles to them early.

Start your own publication/site in the field you want to specialize in. I started a homemade TV newsletter in the 90s which led to writing about TV for over 20 years.
Don’t edit as you write. There’s time for that later.
Reading great writers is more important than reading “how to write” books (and I’ve read over 200 of them).
If you can, marry someone rich.

That’s it! This is everything I know about freelance writing as a career, or at least close to it. Have more questions? Let me know in the comments below!

Advice for Writing Students

58251_7227I teach writing classes and one-on-one sessions, privately and through Gotham Writers’ Workshops. I’ve written before about ways I think students can get more out of their teachers. But there are other writing teachers in the world, and they have good advice for you, too. I happen to know a few of them, and I happened to ask them. So here are some of the best, most important words of wisdom they shared:

“Obviously write has much as you can, but to give yourself time and space from whatever you create. I used to use the phrase ‘let it bake.’ Write something in the morning, then go out and do something *completely different* and then look at it again the next day. You’ll see mistakes, long sentences, and find a million ways to improve it. Honestly, unless you’re in a newsroom, there is no way to unleash copy into the world the second it hits the page.

This advice can be applied to everything: edit tests,  important emails, cover letters, etc. Writing is a constant work in progress. Remember that, and all your dreams will come true.” — Pauline Millard
“Be brutally, devastatingly, awkwardly, embarrassingly, unabashedly honest. Put your blood on the page.

I can always tell when someone is holding back. And if they’re not, I usually have to read their work again to actually critique it, having been so absorbed in it the first time.” — Heather Wood Rudúlph
“I don’t buy for a *second* when high profile writers say they write for 6-8 hours a day. No human being can do *anything* for 6-8 hours a day. Look at office workers, half the time they’re doing something completely unrelated to their jobs when they’re at work. Science has even found that most people can only really concentrate for about 45 minutes to an hour, and then they need a break.

When I was strictly working from home — doing freelance and contract work — I would write for a total of *maybe* 3-4 hours and was usually done with what I needed to do by 3:30 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. And then I would exercie, run errands, etc.
So, if someone is working on a novel, maybe they can tackle a draft of a chapter in a day. Maybe they get a draft of an article done in a day, or two phone interviews. But the idea that “real” writers can slog it out for 8 hours straight is actually physically impossible. And people shouldn’t be so hard on themselves in terms of output.” — Pauline
“Don’t use ‘literally.’ Literally ever. Every time you do I think you’re Rob Lowe from Parks and Recreation and I just can’t with you.” — Heather
“Read your work out loud. Not only can it help you catch grammatical errors, but also unnatural dialogue, clunky phrasing, and even unintended meaning.
I say this as both a poet and as a teacher who needs to communicate clearly—reading out loud is one of the best things you can do for writing, even if you never plan to ‘perform’ your work!” — Britt Gambino

Lessons from Personal Essay Class

58251_7227I’ve taught a few class sessions on personal essay writing lately, which means I’ve read some personal essay assignments of late. It’s much easier to see the chinks in others’ writing than it is to see it in our own, so I feel as if I’m constantly learning by teaching. (Don’t worry, I still tend to be more of an “expert” than my students, simply by dint of experience.) Here are a few of the principles I’ve learned (or been reminded of):

Be clear about what you’re trying to say. Your first draft of a personal essay can often be a rambling, beautiful mess. You’re typing deep thoughts, stringing together a bunch of incidents and insights that you didn’t even realize were related until you started writing. Personal essays allow for some of the most self-discovery through writing. However, once that first draft is done, you need to figure out what its actual point is, then revise to make it come through.

Have a dramatic, easy-to-understand opening. You need to get my attention with a story. Make it a good one, and make it very clear. One thing that often happens in personal essays is that you assume readers understand your life and your leaps from one thought to another. You often have to slow down and explain the significance of certain people, places, and stories.

Have an audience in mind. Even if you’re writing the essay without knowing where it will ultimately be published, have a publication in mind while writing it. You have to write to a specific audience — true in any kind of writing, but particularly true in essays.

Launching Your Blog: Class Coming Soon!

IMG_0760I am starting a short (three-session), in-person class this month about Launching Your Blog. This will take students step-by-step through the process of setting up and starting a blog: establishing your mission, choosing a name, coming up with posts, writing headlines, making a blogging schedule, and actually setting up/launching the thing. It will consist of three two-hour sessions in NYC, for $199. It will be in my living room, complete with Wi-Fi, and we will walk through the process together. I will also probably give you tea. You’ll get homework and feedback on your ideas from me and your classmates. It will be fun! Email me if you’re interested, and we can talk scheduling and other details.

I also offer one-on-one coaching on this and other topics. You can find more info about that here.

My Favorite Books About Writing Nonfiction

41lhhayQO9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I always love reading about writing. I caution students about spending so much time reading about it that they never actually do it, but these books in particular have been invaluable in shaping my own approaches to writing. Some of them focus on nonfiction specifically, while many are great for any kind of writing:

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell: I use this every time I do a self-edit on a manuscript. It’s also a fun book to read straight through. She uses the editing process for The Great Gatsby — detailed in letters between Fitzgerald and his editor — to show how editing makes everything better.

The New New Journalism, by Robert Boynton: Interviews with all the rock stars of current creative nonfiction — Ted Conover, Erik Larson, Susan Orlean. This is like a fan magazine for nerds like me.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron: For anyone doing any kind of writing, or any kind of art, this is a go-to for kick-starting your creativity. It’s a practical, step-by-step process full of nutty self-helpy stuff that I just tune out. I resist what Tom Bissell once brilliantly called “tea and angels writing” — you know, workshops about finding yourself through writing and that sort of thing — and this book has a lot of that silly ’90s self-help language in spades. But underneath is an effective plan for getting your creative juices flowing. I’ve done it at least five times throughout my adulthood.

Storycraft, by Jack Hart: Helps with the hardest parts of nonfiction — making real life into great stories, while still telling the absolute truth.

Telling True Stories, by Mark Kramer: Covers journalism as well as book-length nonfiction, through written pieces by and interviews with writers and editors.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott: A classic. Great inspiration to just keep going with your work — even, especially, when you’re feeling despondent or overwhelmed.