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.