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.