Friday, December 30, 2011

Taking Stock

For many writers, the New Year means a chance for a new beginning. For others, it offers a time to reflect on what happened during the past year. Whichever one it is for you, the New Year offers a time to set new goals and analyze your situation. Just as retailers set aside the month of January to take stock of their inventory, so should you take stock of not only what you wrote and published in the last year, but accomplishments you achieved and problems you need to solve.

To move forward, you have to plan ahead. Recognize problems early on—set down goals you want to reach, obstacles you need to overcome, and the resources you have at your disposal. Doing all of these things is almost as good as solving the problems, themselves.

No general ever goes into battle without some sort of plan. Military commanders need a map marked with all their troop units’ positions and weapons in order to make fast and effective decisions in the heat of battle. You need to do the same in order to assess your situation and draw on the resources or ideas best suited for each situation.

First, write down the problem or direction you’d like to take, followed by the goals you need to achieve to solve that problem or get started in your new direction. Together these are known as a situation summary.

Although you can use a situation summary at any time to resolve difficult business decisions, writing up one or more of them at the beginning of the year will set you off on the right foot.

A common problem facing many freelance writers is upgrading their markets. Perhaps you’ve published several articles or short stories in local newspapers or small regional magazines, none of which pay you enough to make a living. You want to continue freelancing but to do that you’ll have to sell to more reliable, higher-paying markets. This is where a situation summary can work wonders.

To begin, jot down a short concise statement of what you’d like to do. Next you need to write down your goals—both long and short term—as well as actions you’ll need to take to reach them. Be specific. Lay out a detailed plan, including relevant dates and resources required. For each goal, write down three actions.

Following your goals and actions, you should write down the benefits of the actions you’ll be taking. Will they increase your financial bottom line, increase your work schedule flexibility, or give you peace of mind—or all three?

How much time or money will be required to achieve your goals? Will you have to spend additional time writing and marketing that might be spent with your family? Will you need to purchase new or additional computer equipment and programs? Or will you need to do a good deal of research to go in-depth with a subject?

What if what you’ve got planned doesn’t work out? List some alternative solutions and why you should stick to your main plan. Some call this “Plan B.” However, often these alternatives present other problems that make reaching your goals for the new year doubly hard.

If you’re seeking to improve your markets, you must allow a block of time to study what’s out there. Are there editors out there that you know that might help you advance your plan? List anyone and everyone who may be able to help you. Can you build on what you’re doing now? Perhaps you can spin off a new specialty from a subject that you’ve written a lot about?

Lastly, set a date to review your actions—say in a month or two. And set a date to review your short-term goals to see if you’ve reached one or all of them, most likely at the end of the first or second quarter.

A situation summary, like a business plan, should be flexible and able to be adjusted as you go. Keep an open mind. Look for the positive side of whatever develops and build on it. And if you do, you’ll definitely have a Happy New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Make a List and Check It Twice

Everyone knows that Santa Claus makes a list and checks it twice before going on his merry way to bring gifts to all good little boys and girls. Most people do the same before going Christmas shopping. But I bet you never thought of making a list of not only all the places you could sell your writing, but also the different forms of writing you can sell, produced from the same research.

Too many non-fiction writers research an article or book idea, write and publish it, then forget about it. As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

First let’s look at the many types of articles you could write based on the subject matter. If you work in education, you might consider writing one for a journal in your field. But that’s pretty much a dead end to a freelance writer and either doesn’t pay anything or very little.

If you like to travel, you have a myriad of article types to choose from. There’s always the straight travel article about the places you visit, but you could write several on the adventure or sports side of those places. And don’t forget food and historical articles about them.

If you prefer a more scientific approach, you could write about new scientific discoveries and about how they affect medicine, commerce, or industry. Writing trade articles can mean steady work.

And then there’s business and finance articles. Pieces about new business ideas, new businesses, and business advice are always in season. How to market certain types of businesses is yet another approach. Interviews with top business professionals helps those on their way up.

You could also approach a subject by its effect on people. Family relationships, genealogy, art of living, and sociological influences are just the tip of the relationship iceberg.

Your second list should be all the ways you can treat the same subject. One of the easiest articles to write is the how-to piece. Combine this with the standard advice article, and you have a winner.

If you like helping others, you may want to work your information into an inspirational article.  Tell it from your own life, and you have a personal experience piece. An article told from your own insight is one of the most powerful out there. And readers love them.

Take a look at the past and put some nostalgia into your work. Nostalgia pieces are becoming increasingly popular with the ever-growing crowd of baby boomers out there. They like to remember how things used to be, even if their memories cloud over some of the bad things and make the past seem rosy.

Reader’s Digest always said that humor is the best medicine. But not everyone can write humorous articles. Just because you think something is funny doesn’t mean your readers will. Try your humor out on your friends first.

Perhaps you want to get serious and write exposés. These take a considerable more research and time, but in the end can be worth while. If the exposé is too much for you, then perhaps you’d like to try writing controversial essays, although the market isn’t too open for them. In today’s publishing world, a blog on a controversial subject will be more likely to succeed.

And for all those books you’ve read researching an idea, perhaps you can find time to write reviews of them.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Choosing the Hare or Tortoise Route

As the old saying goes, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Whether you choose to go the fast route or the slow route to freelance writing success depends on how you start out. If you sprint from the starting line, you may find that soon you’ll run out of energy and slow down considerably. If you start at slow and steady, you may find that you’ll have enough energy to go to big and better things.

You may find that you can jump-start your writing career if you do one of three things. You may get some pieces published in at least six top markets within your first year or so. If you play your cards right, you may find you’ll become a regular in one or two of those markets, thus affording you a steady income. From this early success, you’ll be able to pitch more articles and books to editors because your credibility will have taken a quantum leap.

Another way to jump-start your career is by coming up with a sparkling new and innovative idea for a book which might begin a new trend in publishing. Agents may be beating down your door to get a crack at auctioning it off to the highest bidding publisher. But if you go this route, you must be prepared to continue the trend and come up with even better ideas.

The third way to jump-start your career is by publishing your own work and promoting it every way you can until you end up with one or more bestsellers. Until recently, editors and readers looked up any writer who self-published his or her work as one who wasn’t good enough to get published commercially. However, in today’s fast moving publishing environment of the Internet and E-readers, that attitude is changing fast. So if you’re a good writer and have lots of good ideas and some technical know-how, you can easily produce some great material, bypassing the slower traditional publishing route and hopping on the fast freeway to potential success. (NOTE: I’ll cover self-publishing in future blog posts.)

If you’re an enterprising writer, traveling any of the above routes will get you on the fast-track to success. Being at the right place with the right idea at the right time will guarantee it. On the other hand, you could just get lucky. A magazine editor may love your work and welcome you into his or her stable of writers, sending you assignments faster than you can tackle them. Too many beginning writers only think of this route and pitch their ideas only to top markets, then come crashing down when the editors reject their work or, worse yet, don’t even reply, leaving them in limbo.

For the majority of writers just starting out on the path to success, going slow is the best way. Unlike the hare who starts at the top and then fights to stay there, you’ll need to start at the bottom and work your way up the ladder. It’s a tough climb from which you’ll be knocked down more than a few times, but eventually you’ll reach the top. With lots of writing experience behind you, you’ll have a better chance of staying on top longer.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Give 'Em What They Want

As a freelancer, it’s important to give editors what they want, not what you think they want or what you personally feel strongly about. This applies not only to periodicals—magazines and newspapers—but also to books.

Editors will tell you what they want, if you ask them. Their needs aren’t a closely guarded secret. But for the most part they’re too busy trying to fill those needs to broadcast them. They do, however, try to get the word out to writers by publishing writer’s guidelines for their particular publication. You’ll usually find these on the publication’s or book publisher’s Web site. These guidelines, and they’re just that, guidelines, cover all the basics about a publication—the number of readers, preferred subject matter, length of articles or books, method of submission, amount of payment and when you can expect to receive it, and, most importantly, the number of articles or books published in a year.

But these are only guidelines. Editors don’t often know exactly what they want until they see it. They’re kept busy trying to please their bosses, trying to make next month's issue better than the last, and trying to figure out what their readers will want to read six months ahead. At the same time, they’re keeping a watchful eye on the market—for magazines, paying attention to newstand sales and subscriptions, and for books, checking on print and ebook sales.

Magazine editors also have to worry about the amount of editorial space they have to fill each month. What if a writer doesn’t meet a deadline? What if the story submitted is badly written? What if the story doesn’t end up the way the editor thought it would? That’s a lot of “what ifs.”

And while book editors may not have to worry about one article, they have to think about whole books not working out. What if the writer fails to develop the book the way he or she intended? What if the writer drastically overwrites and the manuscript needs extensive editing? What if the market for the book fell apart during the time the writer worked on it? Again, that’s a lot of “what ifs.”

Sometimes it takes an on-the-ball freelancer to come up with a snappy new idea that grabs the editor’s attention. As a professional writer, you’ll need to have your fingers in lots of pies. You need to keep up with the latest trends. You need to prospect for nuggets of information, which you can assemble with other nuggets into a cohesive whole. In short, you need to be a gold mine of ideas.

Besides studying numerous writers’ guidelines, you’ll also need to analyze a magazine's or book publisher’s needs, so you can keep up with the changes, such as spot an editorial rearrangement or a shift of emphasis in editorial matter. Study at least a year’s worth of issues of a magazine or, for books, study the publisher’s latest book catalog to see what’s on the docket for the coming year.

Remember, editors think ahead—sometimes way ahead. Just like retail clothing buyers, editors think six or more months ahead. They’re planning their June or July issues in January. In July, they’re planning their December, holiday issues. If you’re submitting a proposal for a Christmas story in November or December to a magazine with a three- to six-month lead time, you're wasting your time. Length of lead time is the first question you’ll want to ask an editor. The second is when can you expect to be paid. Often you’ll find the answers to these two important questions in the writer’s guidelines. But just to be sure, it pays to ask. Magazines often plan their issues six months to a year ahead while book publishers often plan their projects two years ahead, depending on how long it takes them to get a book in print.

The only surefire way to find out what an editor wants is to try to give it to him or her. Don't query once, then stop after one rejection. If you do your homework and query repeatedly with different ideas, you’ll eventually hit your target.

Generally, editors want—or at least wish they had—what their competitors already have. They  want top-name writers, even if they can’t afford them. They want what their readership surveys to  tell them their readers want, even if they often don’t. They want writers to do their part and write stories that their readers will love, even if this doesn’t always happen. To hit the mark, you have to keep trying, again and again and again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Check Out Your Competition

Before any business owner starts a business, he or she first checks out the competition. Freelance writing isn’t any different. The mistake that most beginning freelance writers make is that they aim too high, considering top-name writers as their competition. Instead, you should be studying those closer to where you are while studying the techniques of those at the top.

When you examine periodicals and even books, pay special attention to the writers who appear over and over in them. Make note of those who seem to get the most mileage out of an idea or have the most prominent articles or the most books published by the same publisher. If one or two names appear in a number of markets, make a note to whom they're selling their work. Also see if  these writers seem to specialize in any particular subject. Most magazines publish a short bio of a writer below the article by that writer. Though brief, they’ll give you an insight into what type of work the writer has become known for and other works by him or her in past editions of that same magazine. These will help acquaint you with the writer behind the byline.

Make a list of the writers you find most often, then head to your local library to look them up in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, going back maybe five or six years.  Write down the other titles of articles or stories they've published, then find them and read them. As you do, you’ll want to make some notes as to what about these articles stand out. Afterwards, you’ll be able to make a few notes about the writers’ careers. Have they stayed with the same markets over and over? Did they progress from a bylined story to a spot on the masthead? Have they appeared in competing periodicals and, if so, did they seem to progress in professional stature? To find which magazines are competing with each other, head to your local bookstore or newstand and look over the magazines on the rack. Most will be grouped by subject matter, so it will be easy to determine which ones are in competition for the same readers.

Now that you know who is your competition, how do they write? What sort of style do they use? Is it slick and sassy or educated and intellectual? Do they thoroughly research their pieces? Does the writer seem bright and on the ball? Or is their writing just ho-hum, average, publishable? If their writing is way above average, you should be studying those writers to see what makes them tick.

Another way to look at your competition is to study what they’re writing about. To be a good writer, you must read widely and know what’s being published. While all writers write alone, the good ones are aware of the latest trends in their subject field. And keeping up with their markets is the best way to do that.

Editors constantly emphasize reading a publication before submitting. While this may seem like it would only apply to magazines, it also applies to books. Checking out the catalogs of book publishers will help you avoid sending your books to publishers who have no interest in publishing your book in the first place. By studying the pieces in a publication, you’ll learn what kind of pieces its editor wants and what subjects he or she doesn’t want—those that seem to be missing.

If you’re interested in publishing magazines articles, by now, you've chosen a few periodicals in each of the categories that interest you. Now try to figure out what types of articles or short stories these writers are writing. Not all writers write just one type of article, such as a travel piece, or one type of short story, such as a mystery. As a beginning freelancer, you may find it difficult to clearly define which category or genre an article or short story fits into. Study them carefully.

And even if you’ve been freelancing for a while, it doesn’t hurt to review your competition from time to time. It’s the only way you’ll get ahead.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Master the Possibilities

The now-famous phrase, “master the possibilities,” used by Mastercard in its promotional campaigns also applies to freelance writing. But with freelancing it’s less about whipping out your credit card than figuring out how to find markets for your work.

Before you go searching, however, you have to figure out exactly what type of writing you want to do. Are you planning to write articles for publication, either in print or online or both? Or are you more into business writing, preparing press releases, ghost-written articles for trade magazines, and such? While you can work in both directions, it’s better to chose one and stick with it. And while both require the same writing skills, each requires a different mind set.

It used to be that publication was more insular. As a freelancer, you’d send your pieces to publications that might print them and you’d get paid. Today, with the advance of technology, the publishing world has exploded with what seems an endless list of possibilities. Unfortunately, just as there are many more opportunities to get published, so are there many more, especially online,  that don’t pay anything. And you can’t live on those. With the ease of online publishing and self-publishing through e-books, many more would-be writers are finding it easier to get published, even if they have to do it themselves, thus by-passing the hurdles of the traditional route. So competition is fierce.

To begin with, you need to check one of the primary annual market guides—Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace.

The first on the list, Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books, has been around since 1921 and of the three is the least expensive with a list price of about $30. It features over 6,000 listings of newspaper and magazine markets, book publishers, including small presses, playwriting and screenwriting markets, and even those for greeting cards. Each listing gives you the information you need to see if your work will fit. And while there are many markets in which your work will be a good match, there are 10 times as many that it will not. And while the two-and-a-half-inch book has it’s good points, it offers a lot of markets that just don’t pay well or not at all.

Literary Marketplace claims it’s the “ultimate insider’s guide” to the publishing industry. For a whopping $339, it ought to be. It offers 54 sections in which it organizes publishers, agents, advertising agencies, associations, distributors, and events. It features twice the number of listings as Writer’s Market, but concentrates mostly on book publishing. Since its cost is prohibitive, you’ll have to use it at your local library.

Whether you use one or the other or both of these annuals will depend on how well you’re repeatedly tapping certain markets, how good you are at selling spin-off material, and where you wish to focus your publishing efforts each year.

As you progress in your freelancing career, you’ll find more markets that aren’t listed in the above annuals. Publishers of all kinds choose whether they want to be published in them. Many refuse because doing so opens them up to receiving tons of correspondence from too many wannabee writers who have neither the skill or talent to write well. They prefer to be more selective. Also, new technologies create new markets. In the last five years many opportunities have opened up for educational and recreational material for home and school computers.

Because editors play musical chairs and their requirements change regularly, it’s a good idea to use the latest version of each of the annuals. It’s important to know the exact name, spelling, title, etc., of a publication’s editor. If you’re going to impress editors, you must get their names right.

In the case of Writer’s Market, you can check out last year’s edition from the stacks at your library, find what publications look good, and make a list of them, then go back to the library and find those on your list in the latest edition in the reference section and note the changes. Because of the high cost of Literary Marketplace, you’ll have to do all your work on the reference edition at the library.

You can keep up with changes during the year by watching the market columns in Writer's Digest Magazine and The Writer, the only two magazines devoted exclusively to writing. You can also subscribe to the Writer’s Market online and catch up with changes there.

If you've decided on a specialty, you'll subscribe, I'm sure, to the best publications in your chosen field, or track them down regularly wherever you can. If you’re serious about book publishing and not just publishing a book, then reading Publishers Weekly regularly at your local library is a must.

Whether markets appear to be a broadening or a row of locked doors is entirely up to you, your energies, ambitions, and skills as a writer, promoter, and, most importantly, a salesperson.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Brushed by the Wand of Success

Any writer who has deposited a check signed by the treasurer of a publication has, at least for that point in time, been brushed by the wand of success. To me, success is relative. It’s that special feeling I get at a particular moment when I feel I’ve made it.

In the beginning, it was all about getting published. Once I did that, I sat back on my newly-found success and waited for the assignments to roll in. I waited and waited and waited. In fact, I ended up waiting for nearly six years. And in all that time, I didn’t publish another piece.

Success is a funny thing. It does things to me, as I’m sure it does to you. I feel a not only a sense of accomplishment but one of euphoria. When I saw my first article in print in a national magazine, Popular Mechanics, I couldn’t believe it. The article looked great. And there was my name in print, as bold as it could be, letting everyone know that I was the writer.

Notice I didn’t say “author.” I reserve that title for those celebrity writers, like Stephen King, Ann Rice, and Norman Mailer, among others, who appear regularly as guests on talk shows like “Charlie Rose” and late-night shows like “Letterman.” I’m just a writer who works hard, the kind that makes up the backbone of the freelance writing industry.

After my initial bout with success, I realized I hadn’t handled it very well. While I managed to get something published, what good did it do me. I had my 15-seconds of fame. What I failed to do was build on that success which stopped me dead in my tracks. What actually happened was what I call a “happy accident”—a good thing that just happens but the chance of repeating it is slim. Some writers go through their whole carriers having happy accidents. I soon learned that I had to take control of my success or I won’t have any others.

I had written an article on building a modern “chuck wagon” box for my hatchback so that could travel across country camping while still eating home-cooked meals. The idea was a practical one, so the magazine's editor thought his readers would benefit from it. However, the subject was far from what I wanted to publish—travel articles about exotic places. It was only remotely related to travel, and the writing wasn’t anything like what I wanted it to be. In essence, this became a dead end piece, an article that couldn’t really help me get anywhere. That’s why I didn’t move on in publishing for six years.

The next big success for me was my first book, a book for teens on solar energy. I learned a lot from that book, but it, again, wasn’t in my field of expertise, just a field of interest. Because it wasn’t about travel or by this time history, but science, I didn’t get anywhere with that project, either. I couldn’t promote the book to publications because it wasn’t what I was writing regularly.

After that bit of success, I began to pay attention more to what I was writing. I focused on several different subject areas and made a point of not writing in others that wouldn’t advance my career.

My next book, called Amish Country, was a big success, and showcased my travel writing skills. The Amish live less than an hour from me, so it was easy to write about them. My future articles and books all moved my career forward, and successes became more frequent. Soon my successes outweighed my failures, and at that point I considered myself a professional freelance writer.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What is Your Profit Motive?

As a freelance writer, you’re in business to make money. How much is up to you. You can write a lot and get paid little or write a little and get paid a lot. Chances are you’ll fall somewhere in between. But one thing is for sure, there are only so many hours in a day, so the amount you make may be limited, especially if you’re writing books or articles for magazines.

If you’re writing books, you can only work on one at a time. The amount of time it takes to research and write a book is staggering while the advance you may receive pays for only a fraction of that time. If you’re a good multi-tasker, you may be able to pound out an article or short story or two while working on your book, but most writers put all their energies into such a massive project.

Writing articles actually pays better in the long run. If you have acquired some steady markets, you’ll be writing constantly and the money will pour in regularly.  If you’re just starting out, you may find yourself strapped for cash between assignments.

So what is your profit motivation? Are you content to make a little while pursuing other creative projects—for this you’ll need a working spouse or a rich benefactor? Or do you need to earn a living to help support a family or yourself if you live alone? Many married women writers claim they’re making a living just like any male writer, but what if they weren’t married and couldn’t depend on their husbands’ paycheck to take care of most or all of the bills? While it may be okay to do this in the beginning, after a while your spouse will grow tired of paying the bills by himself.  The opposite it also true for husbands taking up freelance writing while their wives work at a steady job to pay the bills.

Even if you’ve been publishing and making a modest living at writing, you may be guilty of practices that hinder you from making more money. Maximizing your profit requires you to budget time and money carefully. Will you be able to live on say $12,000 a year or less? Perhaps you had better decide if you love your daily Starbucks latte more than writing!

You need to budget everything. Leave nothing to chance. Periodically review your bills to see if you can lower any of them. This will mean not having the latest smart phone or that big-screen Plasma T.V. that your neighbors have. And while you’re at it, better decide to move from the McMansion you live in now to a more modest house.

But budgeting isn’t all about sacrificing the things you love for your writing. It just means that you need to prioritize. List the things that are most important to you. If that cup of Starbucks coffee or that giant SUV that you drive is important to you, then perhaps you better give up on your dreams of becoming a writer, unless you want to write press releases or advertising copy.

As much as you need to learn about writing to improve your skills, so you should learn about the business of business if you expect to keep your profits growing. You’ll be running a small business. Don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s anything else. Talk to other small business owners. What do they do to make sure they stay in business? While your business may be slightly different than theirs, the procedures are the same, even down to what to deduct on your tax return.

Set up daily and monthly schedules and stick to them. Self discipline is very important in freelance writing. It’s not all about spending leisure time at the café reading Twitter messages from your peeps on your smart phone. It’s about working hard and enjoying your time off, knowing that you’ve done the best job you could getting pieces finished and sent in on time.
Review your methods periodically. Weed out the bad habits. Are you allowing too many interruptions to devastate your schedule? Are you letting too much time slip by before you get an idea and propose it to editors or your agent? Are you learning from your competition?

To be a successful freelancer, you have to periodically review your assets and liabilities. You  can’t afford to imagine there isn't room for improvement. Above all, freelancer writers don't believe in giving things away for free. If a publisher isn’t willing to pay for your work, pass them by. You can’t pay for groceries with a freebie.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Staying Afloat Without a Paddle

As important as the quality of your writing is to freelancing, so should your financial base. Too many beginning writers only daydream about how wonderful it would be to strike out on their own and get paid for their writing. In order to stay afloat while freelancing, especially in the beginning while you’re opening markets and gathering clients, you must have money to pay your bills.

If you’ve ever bought a house, you know how careful you have to inspect it. Once you sign the sales agreement, you’re stuck with it, no matter what problems may arise. The same goes for severing the financial cord to your fill-time job. By doing thorough research and planning carefully, you’ll be able to concentrate on your writing and not have to worry about how you’re going to buy food or pay for heat and fuel for your car.

When I began freelancing, I decided that if I had to work part-time at any point in my freelance career that I would only get a job at something related to what I was doing. I figured that if I working thinking and working with writing or any of the subjects I wrote about then I might also gain some knowledge or insights to help me in my writing. I wrote about travel and tourism, so I worked as a travel agent. I wrote about the Internet and technology, so I learned to design Web sites for small businesses. I even did public relations writing—I got plenty of press releases and learned to write good ones from them.

But the job that has offered me the most opportunities was teaching what I loved to do best—writing. No, I didn’t teach in public school or college. Over the years, I’ve taught continued education courses at a number of colleges and universities as well as community evening schools in my area. I knew that I really couldn’t write all day and all night, so I scheduled my classes during the evening hours. No course is longer than eight weeks and each session runs for two hours. I work as an independent contractor, thus setting my own schedule and creating and writing my own courses. Once a course is “in the bag,” I just have to reap the profits.

The experience I gained teaching writing courses propelled me into an even more lucrative sideline—business writing workshops. I earn more in a six-hour day doing this than writing two or three articles. But instead of presenting these workshop constantly, I’m selective and only do them occasionally.

Another sideline related to my course work is lecturing. I’ve amassed loads of information on a variety of subjects, as well as photographs of the same. I began assembling these into one-hour lectures that I present at retirement centers and at conferences. Again, once a lecture is all assembled, it’s easy to draw from my inventory and reap the profits.

When, do you ask, do I have time to write? Believe it or not, I have a lot of time because I set my own schedule. All my teaching venues know that if something comes up, I may need to cancel a class and make it up later. All have been very accommodating. Plus, I get all sorts of ideas when teaching others.

My Web design business kicks in when times are slow. It takes a lot to put a good site together, so I take on only one client at a time. The pay is usually worth it.

During the recent economic downturn, my ability to turn a profit with my other ventures has paid off handsomely. All of these ventures come under the umbrella of Bob Brooke Communications, my brand name and the company I created.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stringing Along

One way I got by early in my freelancing career was to become a stringer. The term stringing goes back to early newspaper days when a reporter's copy was "strung together," so the newspaper paid him—there weren’t very many female reporters back then—by the inch. Today, that term means working for a newspaper or magazine “from the field,” turning in ideas and stories to the editor either when I find them or when the editor sends me an assignment.

Each publication sets up its stringer network differently. Some stringers receive small retainers plus a fee for an article when the publication prints it. More often than not, publications forego the retainer in favor of a loose agreement as to the acceptance of pieces or guaranteeing a certain number of them will see publication throughout the year. Or the publication will just keep feeding me regular assignments with no guarantee—the most common practice. Either way, the editor knows the quality of my work and how to get hold of me fast.  In turn, I know what kind of stories they want and how to present them, including sending photos if needed. From experience, I know I can count on a certain amount of work each month which helps me plan my budget. What’s even better, I can string for several publications at the same time as long as they’re not competing for the same readers.

When I first started freelancing, it took a while to find a publication willing to take me on as a stringer. Just by luck, I was working as the manager of a mom-and-pop travel agency. A friend at another agency signed me up for a press trip to Guatemala at a trade show. At the time I wasn’t writing for any publication and needed an assignment to go on the trip. I cold called the managing editor of a travel trade magazine. She was interested in the destination and gave me an assignment to write about tourism there. Upon publication, I was to be paid a whopping $30. She liked my article so much, she started assigning me more of them. Soon, I was writing two or three articles a week for her. These pieces weren’t especially complicated to research or difficult to write, which left me time to try to get articles published in other publications.

Four years later, I had quit my day job as a travel agent and jumped head first into freelance writing. One morning I cold called the managing editor of the Philadelphia Business Journal—I live just outside the city—and explained that I had experience covering business topics (Isn’t tourism a business?) and was interested in writing for him. I pitched an idea to him, which he liked, and I got my first assignment. After completing several other assignments, he began to call on me every week, sometimes twice, to cover a variety of business stories. Some were news while others were features. He gave me feedback on my articles, telling me what he wanted or didn’t want. As time went on, he even told me who to call on for interviews and gave me their phone numbers. The Journal paid $160 for each article. In most cases, I had three or four days to complete a story from research to finished article. He knew I could turn a story around very fast and that he could count on me to be accurate. At the same time, I was still writing for my original travel trade publication.

While the per article amount may not seem like a lot in either case, it quickly became income I could count on while I tried to get published in national magazines.

Working for both publications, I amassed a tidy file of contacts in business and tourism. I knew who to call for what and could get in touch with people quickly. This was before the Internet and E-mail. The articles I wrote for these publications and others like them became the core of my freelance business—at least until I got published in larger national magazines.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Do the Hustle

Are you sitting in your corporate cubicle—either figuratively or literally—dreaming of the day when you can quit the rat race and write full time? Does the proverbial grass seem greener on the side of freelancing? Is your boss hounding you to get those reports that were due last week on his or her desk by 5 P.M? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, then you may be in for a rude awakening when you finally do quit your day job and devote all your time and energies to writing.

Writing and writing to sell are two completely different things. In the first you may write for yourself, for the love of it, not worrying about how much time you’re spending on a piece, satisfied only that you’ve managed to put something, anything, down on paper. In the second, you need to be disciplined, to make sure you finish work on time and get it in so you can get paid. In freelancing, no work equals no pay. Are you willing to live the romantic life of a starving artist? Or do you like to eat three meals a day. If so, you’ll need to do the hustle—the entrepreneurial hustle, that is.

For the moment, forget about the writing. Have you checked your finances recently? Can you live happily without a steady salary, being paid monthly or perhaps in six months? How are you going to be able to live for an extended period while you develop your writing business? Perhaps you better check your older relatives and see if any are ready to kick the bucket and leave you handsomely endowed. For most beginning freelancers that’s not an option.

When you work for someone else, you can get up and leave at 5 P.M. unless you have work to catch up on. Are you going to be willing to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week? Sure, as a freelancer you can set your own hours. But remember, no work, no pay. That’s going to have to become your mantra.

And what about your family? Will you be able to juggle your personal life around your business? If you’re a male, will your wife assume you’ll be able to pick up the kids from school—since you’re not really doing anything anyway? If a female, will you be able to stop and cook dinner for your family or go grocery shopping? To become successful, you’ll have to learn to set priorities. Life won’t be as easy as it was when you worked for someone else.

Work won’t come to you. You’ll have to find it. And that’s where the hustle comes in. You’ll have to study the markets, seek out the best paying ones, or at least the ones at which you have the best chance at publication. This all takes time—time away from writing, itself. Wasn’t that why you wanted to quit your day job in the first place, to write.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Writer’s Library

As a non-fiction writer, I work with facts every day. Today, I have at my disposal a wide range of sources for those facts–library books, e-books, newspaper and magazine clippings, and the Internet to name a few. But nothing is more important than my own personal library, today numbering some 500 books.

During the past week, I was busy directing a group of energetic people at my church who were working to prepare for an annual fall festival that we held this past weekend. A book sale is a small part of that festival. Someone had donated what seemed like a complete collection of books on writing. The person who was organizing the books for sale said these probably wouldn’t sell, and being a writer, would I like to have them. Without hesitation, I said yes. And while I was elated to be receiving such a collection, I was saddened by the thought that a writer had perhaps retired or, even worse, had tried to become one and had given up.

So now these very useful books will be added to my own personal collection of books on writing. And while I may already know a lot of what’s in them, I’ll still use them for reference from time to time.

As a writer in several varied and some related subject areas, I’ve amassed a varied collection of books. For my travel writing, I have a library of guidebooks on all the countries I’ve written about, plus others I’d like to write about. Complementing these are books ones about countries I’ve traveled to or would like to. Add to this books I’ve purchased to help me research travel books I’ve written. Each of my books has a small library all its own.

Then there are my specialties—writing about Mexico and antiques, now expanded to history in general. I’ve gathered a collection of reference books for each of these specialties. For Mexico, my collection features not only guidebooks on various parts of the country but books on its history and culture. My antiques specialty has required me to gather pricing guides, as well as books on individual types of pieces, including those on different kinds and styles of furniture. Added to that are those on ceramics and porcelain, silver, marks, rugs, glassware, etc.

Besides the books for my specialties, I have a rather large collection of books on writing. These include those on how to write various types of proposals, as well as published pieces—articles, short stories, plays, novels, and non-fiction books. The more useful ones sit on shelves by my computer while others occupy another “branch” of my library in my bedroom.

And then there are the books I’ve reviewed and those I read or haven’t gotten to yet. While I prefer to read non-fiction, I have a number of novels and books on short stories from which to choose when the spirit strikes me.

I’m a multifaceted person and as such have other interests. I love to cook, so the “cooking” branch of my library sits on shelves across from my kitchen.  I also love to grow houseplants and gardening in general. This requires me to have a modest collection of books on gardening and growing plants indoors. It takes a bit of specialized knowledge to grow a mini rain forest.

Lastly, the most important books in my library are those I’ve written and those written by writer friends of mine. Nothing boosts my confidence more in slow times than looking at them on the shelf.

Friday, September 30, 2011

It’s All in the Edit

Next to writing the actual words, your most important job as a writer is to edit your work. Good editing makes all the difference between writing and really good writing. However, many writers find it tedious—they like only the buzz they get from the actual process of writing. Also, just as many writers don’t really know what editing is all about. They think they know based on corrections made by English teachers when they were in school, but this is far from the editing needed to make a writer’s work look professional.

First and foremost, before doing any editing, step away from your work. Let it sit idle for at least a day or several. The longer you refrain from looking at it, the better. Your mind will forget about it eventually, so when you do look at it again, you’ll see it in a new light.

Editing is much more than just correcting mechanical errors—spelling, punctuation, verb tense, pronoun agreement, and general sentence structure. Editing deals with the content of your piece. Does it make sense? Is the flow logical? Are your words familiar enough for all readers? (See my previous blog on using $20 words).

Whatever you’ve written, you’ve done so to express yourself on a particular topic. Have you done that? Will that be clear to your reader? Clarity is the number one problem with most poorly edited writing. Remember, your reader can’t phone you or send you an E-mail to ask what something means.

Generally, editing consists of four jobs:  deleting, rearranging, rewriting, and correcting.

First read through your work and delete any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that doesn’t belong. If you can eliminate the word and there's no loss of meaning, then eliminate it.

If you haven’t looked at your work for a while, you may notice that some parts need to be rearranged for better continuity. Readers won’t make the leap, so don’t expect them to figure out what you mean. Make your writing logical. If you’re not telling your story chronologically, make sure you won’t lose your reader in the process.

After you delete parts or whole sections and rearrange others, you’ll most likely have holes to fill, so you’ll have to rewrite some parts to make sure they read well and make sense. In this editing phase, you may also want to check for smooth paragraph transitions. These help your writing to flow effortlessly from paragraph to paragraph.

Lastly, and only then, correct any errors in spelling, punctuation, verb tenses, and pronoun agreement.

Once you’ve edited your article, short story, or book, it may be time to let someone else have a crack at it, especially if it’s a book. Find someone who is a serious reader to go over it in detail. Better yet, hire a professional book editor. With the ease of self-publishing for Kindle or Nook, too many writers today are trying to sell what amounts to writing trash. Make sure whatever you sell is the best it can be before you put it on the market.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Keys to My Success

When I’m at a dinner party or other gathering, inevitably someone will ask me what I do for a living. I tell them I’m a writer and immediately they think of Stephen King or some other celebrity writer. No, I’m not one of those, but I have made a living at freelancing for over 26 years, so I must be doing something right.

There are a dozen keys to my success. Any beginning writer, with a little hard work, can achieve what I’ve done by following them.

1. First and foremost, I meet deadlines. It’s become second nature to me after this long. Editors appreciate a writer who works with them and doesn’t cause them to get behind.

2. I write something new every day.  Perhaps its one of my blogs, a book review, an article for a publication, or an article or two for one of my four Web sites. It’s sometimes hard to make enough time to write since I now have to exercise about an hour and a half a day after recent coronary surgery, plus teach writing classes in the evenings.

3. I read as much as I can. The more I read, the better writer I become because I’m influenced by the thoughts and techniques of other writers. But I don’t just read as a reader, I read as a writer, analyzing the text as if I had written it and seeing how I might improve on it.

4. As a writer, I’m constantly making notes. In fact, my desk is flooded with them. Often, I’ve made so many, I lose track. I make To-Do Lists almost daily. If I don’t, I may forget what needs to be done on what piece.

5. Over the years, I’ve learned to mentally record conversations, visual details, sensory stimuli,  facts—lots of facts. I also record these facts in copious notes that I prepare for each article and book. Notes for the latter often fill an entire file box.

6. To keep myself organized, I’ve learned to clip and file vital information so I can retrieve it later.  This has increased my productivity over the years.

7. Even in this day of e-books and the Internet, I still use my public library from time to time. Some information just hasn’t been digitized. However, I find myself using my local library less and less as technology marches on.

8. And though I love words and their origins, I’m careful not to add vague words, that my readers won’t understand, to my vocabulary.  (See my previous blog on $20 words).

9. I love books and my house shows it. There are books in just about every room. As my writing career has advanced, I’ve amassed a small library of perhaps 500 books on both writing, and the subjects I specialize in—Mexico, travel, and antiques.

10. In order to sell my work consistently, I study the markets for it.  However, today, it has become a challenge to keep up with writing markets. It used to be easy to spot a trend, but things have changed so much and so fast, that today it’s difficult. And while it’s always my goal to be at the right place at the right time, I don’t always hit the mark.

11. Since I began writing books, I’ve had to learn as much as I could about editing, publishing, and marketing. Being more knowledgeable about all facets of my business, I’m a more effective business person.

12. I take my writing seriously and have made an effort to make my family and friends do likewise. It isn’t just a pastime or a passing fancy. I communicate with my readers and now, through social networking, many of them communicate with me.

These keys are what have made me successful, but they won’t necessarily work for every writer.
And while my name may not be a household word, I’m still successful at what I do.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Seven W’s of Freelancing

You’re your own best resource. It all begins with you—who you are, where you live, what you need to survive, what you want out of life, what you believe in, what you know you can accomplish, and what you admit is difficult for you. These are the seven “W’s” of freelancing.

Let’s begin with who you are. Every person—every writer—is unique. Each sees the world in a personal way and interprets it for his or her readers. Everything about you affects the way you write—the environment in which you grew up, your family, your education, your likes and dislikes.

Where you live is equally important. Each region of the country has geographic and cultural differences that influence those who live there. You have been and still are being affected by the geography and climate of your region. Today, to be a successful writer it’s not as important to live in a metropolitan area. But where you live does affect the type of ideas you generate. And your ideas are the foundation of your writing.

Do you know what you need to survive as a writer? This could be better writing skills, better ideas, or better equipment—even money. Are you confident about your writing or do you need someone to tell you its good. It’s important to always work at improving your craft. Study works by your favorite writers and analyze them for the techniques they use. Record your ideas in an “Idea Book,” so that you won’t forget them. And buy the best computer and software you can afford. Remember, you don’t have to buy them new. Used or refurbished units work just fine—plus you don’t have to use the latest and greatest software. Financially, how much will you need to live satisfactorily? Will your writing alone bring in enough for you to live on or will you have to supplement your income. If you have to seek supplemental work, try to find something related to what you’re writing about. Then you’ll increase your knowledge while bringing in extra cash.

Have you given some thought to what you want out of life? The primary goal of beginning writers is to get published. But once you’ve done that, you need to know what you’re going to do next. Create a plan for the future, even if it’s only for six months ahead.

Your personal beliefs will definitely affect what you write. Everyone has personal opinions. Yours will work their way into your writing eventually. No matter whether you write non-fiction or fiction, your opinions will subconsciously seep into your work through topics you choose, themes, even dialogue of fictional characters.

Do you know what you can accomplish, based on your writing skill level? Most writers have no idea what their writing skill level is. Compare your writing to other writers—not the big names but other beginning writers who write about similar topics. Check out books from new writers. You’ll be able to tell immediately if their work is above or below you writing level. As a writer, you should be able to notice really good writing when you read it.

Can you be truthful with yourself and admit what’s difficult for you? People in general don’t like to admit their frailties. Writers aren’t any different. Make a list of your weaknesses–and not just those associated with writing. Once you have them down on paper, you’ll be able to work at making each stronger. You won’t be able to eliminate all of them, but just working at a few of them will make you a better writer and a better person.

Make a list of these seven “W’s” and post it on your bulletin board or your refrigerator. Remind yourself of them every day, and you will succeed.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What Does It Mean to Have Cave Smarts?

Neanderthal man survived for a very long time because he had “cave smarts.” To survive as a freelance writer, you also have to develop cave smarts but of a different kind. While the Neanderthals learned to hunt by trial and error, you must know your strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly.

Most writers are industrious, sometimes intuitive,  at times a bit impulsive and perhaps compulsive, and observant. What drives most writers is inspiration. The difference between writers and wannabee writers is how they handle it.  A wannabee writer believes that he or she has to be inspired to write anything while a professional writer uses inspiration to get ideas that he or she further develops into articles, stories, and books—all the while keeping an eye on their target market.

If you don’t have a reader in mind when inspiration strikes, you might as well not write anything. Writing for yourself won’t get you anywhere professionally. You have to write for a specific audience. This audience may change from publication to publication or from book to book, but it’s there, nevertheless. Knowing who that audience is ahead of time will enable you to use those inspired ideas to their best advantage. And that’s where being industrious comes in. It takes a lot of hard work to develop an idea to its full potential—perhaps hours of research, followed by an equal amount of time actually writing.

And men, don’t let the women convince you that only they have “intuition.” If an idea seems right, then it probably is. Follow your intuition once in a while. You may have a “gut” feeling about a topic. Follow it through. It may turn out to be the best piece you ever wrote or a runaway bestseller.

While it isn’t in your best interest to act impulsively, once in a while you may have to decide then and there—providing the light bulb goes on in your head—that you’re going to start working on an idea. This often will give you a jump on the competition. And in today’s super fast media world, that may not be such a bad thing.

Avoid acting compulsively. Don’t worry about sharpening your pencils or making sure your desk is compulsively neat. Sure, you’ll have to put on your janitorial hat occasionally, but don’t make it come before getting your writing done. Don’t use cleaning, filing, or sorting as an excuse not to write. As a professional writer, you should be able to write any where at any time.

Many believe that successful writers don’t clip, file, retrieve information. Only a handful of writers work at an empty desk with only a computer and a monitor. If you don’t accumulate lots of files on the work your doing, then you probably aren’t doing enough research. You may use clips of articles to help develop a current project, or you may let them age to help trigger ideas in the future. More important than talent or luck, is the knack for using clips and files to research and develop topics to write about. Contrary to popular opinion, professional writers don’t write off the top of their heads. Even writing a blog takes some thought and preparation.

Writers overdevelop their sense of observation the way a blind person overdevelop their sense of smell or hearing. You need to be alert at all times, even when you’re not actually working. Ideas are everywhere and if you’re not keenly observant, you’ll miss them and perhaps some great opportunities.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Can Your Words Change the World?

Many writers don’t realize how their words can change the world. While the average writer may never know the effect of his or her articles, books, or stories, just about all affect their readers in some small way.

As a writer, it’s one job to enhance knowledge and ultimately change the world in which you live and work by publishing a meaningful article on a controversial new topic or by writing a short story or novel that illuminates human frailties. It’s another to affect change.

Early in my career, I wrote an article in a travel trade magazine about Apple Vacations, a travel wholesaler that has since grown by leaps and bounds. A group of people had taken a charter flight with another travel company, which while they were on vacation in the Bahamas, suddenly closed its doors and disconnected its phones, stranding this large group of vacationers. Someone in the office of the travel agent who had booked the charter read my article about Apple Vacations and immediately called them. The representative on the phone connected her to the president of the company who immediately sent one of Apple’s own charter planes to the Bahamas to retrieve the stranded passengers. The travel agency was so overjoyed about the rescue that it switched all of its vacation charter business to Apple Vacations. And I also got a call from Apple’s president thanking me for writing such a good article.

An antique dealer read another of my articles, this one about Parian ware, a less expensive look-alike to marble, and was able to identify a piece in his shop that he had drastically underpriced The information in my article allowed him to make a tidy profit on the piece when he sold it.

The first time your writing affects your reader in a visible way—providing you find out about it—the romance of freelance writing will become clear. When you incorporate the reality of this romance into every thing you write, you’ll begin to realize how rewarding a freelance writing career can be.

But keeping your ego under control is just as important, for success is often fleeting. You may bask in the glow of it for a few minutes, hours, or days, then it’s gone and you have to begin the process once more.

For many writers, the best rewards aren’t monetary, but the satisfaction that perhaps they’ve changed their readers lives for the better.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Avoiding Those Dark Clouds

Dark clouds have descended over my house as thunder rumbles off in the distance. Mother Nature has been doing that a lot lately, keeping my houseplants well watered and lush. But the same thing has happened many times during my freelance career, except the storms are at times less frequent. Freelance writing is a tough business no matter which way you look at it. I’ve had to work hard to succeed in the last 26 years and even harder to make progress. Every time I think I’m well on the way, another obstacle crosses my path. These dark clouds can be daunting and can usually be avoided—although not always.

One of the first of these headaches will be to convince those around you—family, friends, lovers, and yes, even creditors—that you’re really working. Everyone in business for themselves finds themselves in this position. But with freelance writers it’s even harder because much of time a writer spends thinking, which, let’s face it, doesn’t show any physical activity.

Another dark cloud that interferes with many writers’ work is discipline. In this business, it’s imperative to be disciplined. You’ve got to get work done no matter how you feel or how nice it is outside. When it’s a beautiful day, especially in the summer, I take my work outside. I love working on my patio. It’s the ideal place to mull over notes and get my thoughts together. Sure, you can take off whenever you want, but taking off too often doesn’t provide you with money to pay your bills.

To become successful in this business it’s important to have some business acumen. You’ll need to manage your money very carefully and market yourself and your work. Many writers see these as stumbling blocks to their creativity, but both need to work hand-in-hand with it. According to the Small Business Administration, the single biggest reason for failure is a lack of expertise in a chosen field. Second to that comes a lack of understanding of the business side—such things as managing inventory, bookkeeping, understanding what your overhead will be, and managing your cash flow. Unlike a job at which you get paid every week or two, payments will come in sporadically. It’s important to know how to manage your money to make it last.

In the beginning, it may be a struggle to keep going, but eventually you may have the problem of too much work—too many assignments or deadlines. Right when you have several short pieces to complete, your book editor sends you your final galley sheets to be read in just five days! Or right when you plan to enjoy the holidays with your family, a magazine editor calls with a rush assignment that needs to be completed before the New Year. To keep your head straight, you need to set your priorities and make to-do lists—and follow them.

Sometimes, there are even darker clouds on the horizon. During my career, I’ve lost all of my markets at least six times. This happened for a variety of reasons, most of which I can’t begin to fathom. Perhaps my favorite editor left the publication or maybe the publication folded, neither of which I could control. Perhaps the economy takes a nosedive and advertisers stop purchasing ads. Fewer ads equals a thinner magazine, in my case, which results in less editorial and, thus, fewer or no assignments.

This happened in 2001 right after 9/11. Because one of the major areas of my expertise is travel writing, I found myself adrift going into 2002 and have yet to fully recover 10 years later. That one event changed things globally, knocking out many travel markets. But I didn’t let that stop me and turned to other markets I had been cultivating.

And when times get tough, creditors get nasty. To avoid this, I try to stay on top of my bills when times are good so that I have a good record coming into bad times.

One of the most bothersome of those dark clouds are editors who cry on my shoulder that they just can’t pay very much—but want the world. I try not to give in, but sometimes I have to because I need the money. It’s important to judge how much work you’re putting into a project compared to what you’re getting paid. Too many freelance writers work for too little.

Another headache that writers have to deal with today is keeping their office equipment in good running order. Computers are great at increasing productivity until they break down. Most writers know little of the workings of their computer and have to trust other people to fix them which can often be an expensive process.

Lastly, the fast-changing world of communications and the many new outlets for it have changed publishing substantially, making it hard to adjust to competitive conditions. The secret is to evaluate those changes and cope with them. But with the speed of things today, that’s not always possible.


Friday, August 19, 2011

The Best Job on Earth

Whenever I’m at a dinner or a party, inevitably someone will come up to me and ask what I do. I tell them I’m a freelance writer. Then they either ask me where I’m published or what it’s like to be in business for myself. The first question is relatively easy to answer. I dazzle them with a long string of publications, most of which they’ve never heard of. But the second question is a bit more tricky because most people work for someone else. Even my closest friends often have a hard time understanding how I manage to live on so little money. Yes, folks, the truth is that the majority of freelance writers aren’t paid all that much for their work. Do I love to write? Yes. Do I love to eat? Even more than I love to write.

So where did the term “freelance” come from? Historians believe that Sir Walter Scott coined the phrase to refer to itinerant knights who traveled about the countryside, equipped with their own lances and sold their skills to anyone who would pay them. And since the term originated in his works about kings and knights and damsels in distress, it has acquired a romantic connotation.

And to this day, it has retained those same romantic notions, albeit to the detriment of many a would-be writer.

The truth is that freelance writing offers more flexibility in work and lifestyle than most other occupations, as well as a great sense of satisfaction (when my belly is full). From an outsider’s point of view, freelancing seems the best of all worlds—the best job on Earth. Most likely some, if not all, of these outsiders get up at an ungodly hour to brave a bumper-to-bumper commute on a jammed highway or equally crowded train, then spend eight more hours sitting behind a desk in a cubicle. They see freedom from all this drudgery as a form of liberty and power. But as the grass is always greener on the other side, they don’t see the discipline necessary to accomplish that freedom.

Some of the reasons I love freelancing include getting up later, working at home on bad winter days when everyone else has to fight the weather, knocking off early if I’m too tired, and going grocery shopping when everyone else is at work. Notice, I didn’t say anything about writing.

But there are reasons I love freelancing for writing’s sake. The first and foremost is that I can generate my own ideas and develop them the way I want. Second, I can work at my own pace, except when I’m on deadline. Third, I get continuing credit and recognition for my work as long as it’s in the hands of readers. Fourth, I have only a five-minute commute to my office, from bedroom through the den to my office—with no traffic jams—thus saving me precious hours during the workday. Fifth, I can set my own priorities. In fact, that’s one of the most important facets of freelancing for me, being able to prioritize my work. Sixth, I can get paid for my work multiple times, depending on how I use the information I gather through research. Seventh, I’m constantly meeting new people and learning new things. Eighth, since my schedule is open, I can take advantage of opportunities and events that others might not be able to because of their jobs. And lastly, I can develop my work the way I want and gain great satisfaction that I did it myself.

Friday, August 12, 2011

So You’ve Finally Been Published, Now What?

I didn’t start out to be a freelance writer. In fact, I had been studying photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t get anywhere with either. Frustrated, I read somewhere that if I wrote a story to go with my photos, I’d have a better chance of selling them. So I started doing that.

Enjoying traveling, I set out on a cross country driving and camping tour. This happened the year after I had spent nine weeks traveling to and from and around Alaska, a trip of 38,000 miles. I had planned to be awayfor six weeks and the thought of eating basic food all that time didn’t appeal to me. So I designed a compact “chuck wagon” unit that fit into the back of my Mazda hatchback. This allowed me to stop at any supermarket and stock up as I traveled, then make almost gourmet meals along the way.

Naturally, I took photos of the unit, then researched the history of chuck wagons of the Old West. I wrote an article about the unit and how it had served me well in my travels and sent it off to Popular Mechanics Magazine. To my surprise, they accepted it.

That was the last I heard of it until one night I was browsing in a magazine kiosk at one of the malls in my area. Something told me to pick up a copy of Popular Mechanics and thumb through it. Low and behold, I discovered my article, complete with my photos and construction diagrams. I got paid the following week. That was exactly 365 days after I sent in the article. If I would have been freelancing full time, I would have starved to death by that time.

I was finally published. Hooray!

What I didn’t realize was that it was dumb luck that brought me this far. I hadn’t researched the markets, nor had I thought about what the readers of the magazine might want or what the editor might need. I just thought of myself and sent my piece off like a rocket into the black emptiness of space.

After publishing that first article, nothing much happened. I kept sending out travel destination pieces one after the other and sometimes received polite rejection letters in return. Often, I received nothing.

It wasn’t until five years later that I finally got smart and started writing and marketing my work the right way. I began researching the markets until I found a travel industry magazine that seemed like a good possibility. The editor gave me a tentative assignment to write an article about the state of Guatemalan tourism from a trip I was going to make there. She loved it and the rest, as they say, is history. From then on, I had a steady stream of assignments—sometimes two or three a week. While the magazine didn’t pay a whole lot, it gave me a steady income and lots of clips.

Those clips lead to other assignments from other editors. Soon I began publishing in other travel industry publications and national travel magazines. And while I eventually wrote on other subjects, travel writing was always the maintstay of my work.

Friday, August 5, 2011

To Specialize or Not to Specialize

In marketing today, the catch word is “niche.” Practically every new business has to develop a niche market or it won’t survive in today’s tough economy. Niche marketing is all about targeting the right customers and for non-fiction writers in particular that means the right group of readers. Few magazines today publish general content. Most specialize in a particular subject area with its own group of dedicated readers. And to a non-fiction writer, like myself, targeting a group of readers means developing a specialty.

While some writers are generalists—writing about any subject for any market—the most successful ones specialize in writing about just one or two subjects.

So how do you develop a specialty? Begin by looking over the subjects you’ve written about already and see if you’ve written about some multiple times. If one subject stands out, perhaps, with some added subject and market research, you could develop it into a specialty. If none of the subjects you’ve previously written about stand out, consider you interests. Often specialties grow out of a writer’s special interests or hobbies.

Take my path for example. I began writing articles about traveling to various destinations because I like to do that. I wrote about all sorts of places, but go nowhere. Rejections piled up faster than I could write new articles. Eventually, after an eye-opening trip to Mexico, I began writing about that country. First a little, then more and more. Opportunities opened up for me to travel down to Mexico several times a year. By that time, I realized I liked writing about Mexico and discovered a wealth of topics to write about. So I began reading everything I could on the country while continuing to write about it. I explored lots of topics, from history to beaches to culture, food, and traditions. Soon over half the articles I was writing were on Mexico. I had developed a specialty.

One of my special interests is antiques. I love to collect things and to find out more about them, I began writing about them. At first, I wrote on antiques in my collection, then I started branching out to include ones I didn’t own. I found I especially liked writing about antique furniture. Eventually, writing about antiques and collectibles developed into a second specialty.

It takes as long as two years to fully develop a specialty. It’s not just a about gathering topics to write about, but also learning in depth about the subject and finding markets for your work.

The main advantage in specialization is the amount of knowledge you amass about a particular subject over time. The more you learn, the more opportunities will come your way as you become an expert on your chosen subject. And expertise is what you need to write books on your subject.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Staying Afloat in Today’s Market

With the economy the way it is today, it’s become harder and harder for freelancers, like myself, to stay afloat. The age-old doggie paddle just won’t work anymore. Sure, by kicking your feet you’ll keep your head above water, but little else.

So what can you do to make sure the Big Bad Wolf doesn’t come knocking at your door. The answer is diversify. Regular businesses learned this long ago, so it’s time that you as a writer learn it, too.

Before you cut the cord to a full-time job and seek work as a freelancer, you need to figure out what kind of financial base you have from which to operate your freelance business. Yes, that’s right, I said “business.” Every business has some sort of backup plan for tough times, and you should, too.  Thoroughly do your homework so that you’ll have the confidence to know about the writing markets before you begin.

I started out slowly, writing on Sunday afternoons. Then as I got better and got some assignments, I worked at night after teaching school all day. Soon I was writing as much as I was teaching. But I really didn’t do enough research, so when I did quit teaching, I didn’t have much to fall back on.

I decided that if I was going to do this, I would see work in areas that used the knowledge I had gained from the subjects I wrote about. I began teaching continuing education classes about travel destinations—I was an aspiring travel writer—at a local community college. This led to teaching writing classes. After all, I was both a writer and a good teacher, so why not combine the two.
But I still wasn’t making enough.

I sought out a part-time  job at a travel agency since I did know a lot about travel and world destinations. That gave me a regular paycheck with enough time to continue writing. Eventually, I got a full-time job at a better agency while still writing. But that put me back in the same position I was in as a school teacher with one exception. I had learned a lot about the travel industry working in these agencies and this gave me the knowledge and experience to write for travel trade magazines. Once I started doing that, the assignments kept coming in. By the time I had moved to a third agency, I knew I was in a rut. So one day I quit.

But now I had travel trade assignments and articles published weekly in five local newspapers. Plus I was teaching more continuing education classes in the evenings which left my days free to fulfill my assignments. I was on my way to freelance success.

Today, my company, Bob Brooke Communications, encompasses several different areas. Besides writing articles and books, I also have a fairly packed continuing education course schedule. My interest in photography led me to learn as much as I could about digital photography and now I teach that at several locations several times a year. I have also developed a modest lecture circuit which pays well for the time involved. To get material for lectures, I use the information I gather for articles on various subjects and combined with my photography, turn them into lectures.
But to fill in the voids left when writing markets go astray, I began designing Web sites, mostly for small businesses. I began with my own site, then developed three more informational sites. I’ve designed over 25 sites to date. These I do occasionally, but the pay is good enough to tide me over.

So if you have to seek out other work, make sure it’s related to what you write or that you can learn information that will be useful in your writing. My continuing education courses and lectures are all based on what I write. My technical expertise, which I developed solving my own computer problems and designing my own site over the years, has helped me tremendously in my web design work.

Remember, don’t work at anything that will take away from your writing. Work only at jobs that complement it–if you have to seek outside work at all.

Friday, July 22, 2011

So You Want to be a Writer

Over the years, many people, especially my students in my Creative Writing classes, ask me the age-old question, “How do I become a writer?” Writers aren’t born, they’re made—by the writers, themselves.

Since writers work with words, they have to love them. And the key to loving words is reading. It’s surprising just how many writers, when asked, don’t read very much. What they don’t realize is that by reading as much as possible, especially the kind of writing they wish to do, they absorb words and phrases that later on may appear in their own writing. Writers learn by example.

Unfortunately, students aren’t taught that in school. Instead, they’re led to believe that all they have to do is sit down at a computer and the words will just flow out into their fingers as they type. The human brain needs to be fed information just like a computer. That information may come as facts, experiences, or observations. All give the budding writer the resources to create.

The second thing to consider as a writer is what to write—fiction or non-fiction. Some people only consider fiction writers true writers because they’re the only kind of writers they hear about. They read Web pages, magazines, and perhaps a newspaper–if they can find one—every day but don’t consider where the articles come from.  Each type of writing has its merits. Some writers work in both areas.

What about education? Believe it or not, a writer doesn’t need to study “writing” to write. In fact, that may be a deterrent. Outside of school, writers write in a conversational style which is as far from academic or school writing–reports, term papers, and theses—as they can get. What a writer needs is information and that comes from a variety of courses. The more a writer knows, the better prepared he or she will be to write.

A lot of people say to be a good writer you have to have talent. Talent is such an elusive thing. A talented writer is one who can get organized and write faster—a person who is brimming with ideas. But with perseverance anyone can become a writer. The key is not so much talent as having something to say and the ability to say it well.

Every writer dreams of the big successes of famous authors. But only a very few make it to this level. And it’s not because they aren’t good writers. In this business, it’s often who you know, not what you know or write. Believe it or not, luck often plays a big part in a writer’s success. Being at the right place at the right time may land a writer a juicy article or book. And knowing more about a subject than the next writer definitely helps, even in writing novels.

Taking all of the above into consideration, the most important thing a writer needs is discipline. Good writers don’t just write when the spirit strikes them. As long as they have a good topic and something to say, they can write any time. They communicate with their readers. They make those readers feel as if they’re writing only to them.

There are no secrets to becoming a writer. It just takes lots and lots of hard work to make the grade.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Just How Much Can You Make on Book Royalties?

Many of you writing wannabees on the outside of publishing most likely entertain the idea that all authors get rich, based on the handsome advances and royalties paid to some of the top stars. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. In fact, the average percentage of royalties hasn’t changed since before the 1980s! Can you think of anyone whose salary hasn’t gone up at least a little in all that time. Even those earning minimum wage get a hike every once in a while.

So what is this elusive thing called a royalty? Essentially, a royalty is a sum paid for the use of a patent or to an author or composer for each copy of a work sold or for each public performance. Sounds easy enough, but it’s far from it.

First, royalties are basically a percentage of the retail price of books actually sold by the publisher. And in today’s market where booksellers can return unsold books for a refund, the amount a writer actually gets can be quite puny. Currently, the author of an adult hardcover book can expect to receive a 10-12.5 percent royalty for the first 5,000-10,000 copies sold. Big name authors might receive 15 percent based on increased sales volume. If you're negotiating a deal for a paperback, you’ll most likely receive 5-10 percent, with 10 percent more common.

Traditionally, publishers computed royalty rates and the author's earnings from the list price of all copies sold. Thus, if they sold 2,500 copies of a book listed at $15, the author's royalty earnings would be $3,750.  However, some publishers sell books at less than list price through chains of bookstores, supermarkets, and other outlets. As a result, they compute royalties on net proceeds from book sales rather than the number of copies sold. Then again, the larger volume of wholesale sales may compensate for a smaller per copy earning.

Try this. Compute what you would earn if your publisher paid you a royalty based on the list price of your book. Compare that to your royalty earnings the net amount many publishers today use. Then decide if it’s worth negotiating for a higher royalty rate or a higher advance.

Publishers usually pay authors advances against future royalties. How do you figure how much money you might earn from your book? For this you need to study the market for it, rather than take out your calculator. If the subject of your book is a hot one and potentially lots of readers will buy it, then you should negotiate a higher royalty percentage against future sales. However, if the subject is one that may not attract lots of readers, then you should negotiate for a higher advance.

An advance is an up-front payment against which royalties are set. If you fulfill your part of the contact—that is write the book as ordered—then you don’t have to refund it. If your book sells poorly, you’re ahead. And if your book sells well, you ahead based on the amount you’ll get in royalties after you have earned enough to make up the advance. Most beginning authors get three or four-figure advances. So don’t think you’ve hit the big time just because a publisher says her or she will publish your book.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Greatest Adventure of My Life

It’s been a while since I posted anything to this blog. That wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to post but that I was in no condition to post anything. Right after the holidays, I contracted a nasty virus that eventually lasted for a couple of months. This can be a bad situation for a freelance writer, for not feeling well also affected my ability to think and thinking is an inherent part of the writing process.

The symptoms of this virus–beginning with an ear infection and eventually ending up in my chest as acute bronchitis–eventually took me to the Emergency Room at a local hospital. As part of the check-in process, they did an EKG. At the time, everything seemed okay, heartwise. The doctors gave me a prescription for a strong antibiotic and sent me on my way.

A few days later, I got a call from my regular doctor, telling me that the hospital recommended I see a cardiologist as soon as possible. I went to one two days later. Little did I know that I’d be in the hospital for the next two weeks and have three operations to correct blockage in most of my main arteries. It turned out that most of my main blood vessels were 90 percent blocked. The scary thing about this was that I had no signs of any problems–my blood pressure and cholesterol were normal. My cardiologist said I was a walking time bomb.

Medical technology has sure come a long way. After snaking a tiny camera through my blood vessels during arterial catherization, they found the problems and immediately began working to fix them. First, they inserted four stints into my two renal arteries (those going to my kidneys), an artery below my left shoulder, and one in my right leg. A few days later, a surgeon cut open my neck to “clean out” my left carotid—artery (the main one leading to my brain) and two days after that he did the same thing to the one on the right side of my neck.

Two days later, I found myself laying on a cold, narrow steel table, much like the ones they use in the morgue–I watch a lot of the CSI shows—looking up at a myriad of bright lights. Around me were what seemed like an army of machines waiting for the surgical team to plug me into them. For I was about to have my chest cut open and my sternum broken, exposing my heart to what I hoped were skilled hands. In a few moments everything went dark as I fell into an anesthetized sleep in preparation for coronary bypass surgery. To say this scared me to death is an understatement. But for some strange reason I felt unusually calm.

While under the anesthesia, I dreamed I was in FedEx Office’s print shop, having recently had a cookbook printed there. I saw the number “3209" on the wall and tried to figure out what that meant—perhaps it was the number of the next print job. Suddenly, a dapper fellow dressed in a pinstripe suit and a bright-colored natty tie popped in to tell me I was all right and that everything had gone smoothly. At first I thought this can’t be happening, I must be dead, and then I realized it was the surgeon who had operated on me. Now I was really confused. It turned out he had a meeting to attend. It took another 20 minutes to figure out that I was in an Intensive Care Unit room in the same hospital, and now had a myriad of tubes stuck in my chest. This was truly uncomfortable.

And that was the beginning of what has turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life. The recovery process has been a long one, but at 10 weeks this past Friday, I seem to be doing a whole lot better than most in my situation.  And many of those had only bypass surgery. After all those procedures and operations, I should be a lot worse off. But I’m a survivor. I’ve worked just as hard to get through this as I have with my writing over the years. I didn’t make it freelancing for 26 years without a lot of effort and discipline.

For those of you who might be considering freelance writing as a career, remember this: It takes less time to recover from open-heart surgery than it does to become successful at writing.