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Measuring your career and profitability: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 15 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-14 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“When your book hits a major best-seller list, it does create a meaningful ripped effect—more people hear about it, more sales get triggered…and you’re likely to get more invitations to do media or to speak.” (pg. 220)

“It’s important to see and track where the work comes from as well as the profitability of the work.” (pg. 229)

These two quotes come from two different sections of Friedman’s book. The first is from a chapter on book launches, and the second is from a chapter on making a freelancing career.

I see them as being related. My book career is, more and more, related to my freelance writing career, and I am looking to streamline this even more, as I get older and, uh, mature in my career.

Hopefully you’ve seen by now how a lot of writing actually mirrors a lot of the way we would work in any other career: tracking your successes, doing your research, training for success, making sure you have the right resources to succeed, are all par for the course, just as they are in any other field. This is as it should be.

For today’s post, we’ll talk a little bit about what it was like for me before and after my book was published.

My book was published in 2016. Before then, I was doing a lot of marketing writing and content creation. I still do this, because I really enjoy it, but the bulk of the things I was hired to do was either pitched magazine articles or corporate work. A large part of this is not only my actual qualifications, but where I felt most comfortable offering expertise. Even while I was in the process of getting published—a long year, because that’s how long it takes in the traditional publishing world—I didn’t feel quite comfortable talking about what it was like to write fiction or publish it.

Most of my speaking gigs and teaching gigs up to then leaned on my expertise as an editor for the Tahoma Literary Review: I would come into classrooms and talk about things like working with an editor, what editing careers look like. I focused more on the broader field of publishing, since I had a lot of experience in that already, on both the publishing end and the editing and writing ends, as a freelance writer.

After I published, though, it was like a switch flipped in my head. I could see the various options that were open to me more clearly, and, probably most importantly, I felt confident in my offerings. Here’s the key, though: Nothing had changed in terms of my expertise at writing fiction, but the book—that product in my head—gave me key currency with which to trade.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu debuted at number 5 on my distributor’s fiction bestseller list. And it crawled its way up to number 3, and then eventually fell off the back end, after eight long months. And although this is not one of the major best-seller lists that Friedman refers to, it gave me even more of a leg to stand on, if only in my own view of my career as a published writer.

After I published, I felt much more confident pitching magazines with articles on the art of publishing and the craft of writing. And even the nod I got from the Thurber House (Marty Wu was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor) gave me the added emotional impetus I needed to pitch and write an article on black humor, a topic I’ve always wanted to cover.

This where tracking the profitability of these ventures, though, becomes paramount. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the headiness of chasing after speaking gigs and teaching opportunities, or penning blog posts and interviews. And, because much of this work is done with no immediate financial return on time investment (no, you do not usually get paid for doing Q&As about your book), it’s also easy to fall into the trap of justifying this time spent as moving towards more book sales and more speaking gigs.

But you have to work to balance these out. You must acquire paying gigs in order to offset the “free” work you’re doing in order to promote your book and its work.

Pre-publication, that work looked like marketing work for me. Post-publication, it’s paid articles about writing and publishing. It’s also adjunct work.

When I visit college classes, students often ask me if it’s “still possible” to earn a living off of writing books. I tell them yes, but that it’s time to expand the definition of what that means: “Being a writer” means, to me, sharing what I have learned with others. It means building on the capital I’ve acquired and leveraging that.

I mentioned tracking your profitability in the headline of this piece, and I think, the things I mention above are all parts of that puzzle. But one tool you must use is a time tracker and invoicing service. I have used Harvest for many years, thanks to my colleague at TLR, Ann Beman, who introduced me to it ages ago. It comes with a built-in set of parameters that include billable and non-billable hours, so that I can see where my time is spent. I have a complicated formula in my head that allows me to “weigh” what I’m doing against its inherent value, which I’m not going to share with you here because it is too involved—and frankly, I’m not 100% sure of what it actually is.

But I do value the work, on both a practical and an emotional level. And in our society right now, which is based on money exchange and not on, say, the barter system, well, measuring your profitability is the only way I can see of being sure that we are valuing our work on the same level everyone else does.

Here are some tips for you:

  • If you’re doing work for free, be sure you offset it with plenty of work that pays well.
  • Measure or track your time. Be clear about this; no wishy-washiness. You need to know where your time is going.
  • Find your own sense of worth and value around your work. Experience counts, so you can’t expect to command top dollar if you’re just starting out.
  • Finally, don’t underestimate the emotional value of a hard piece of “currency,” whether that be your published book(s), articles you’ve written, or your degree. I mean this mostly from an emotional standpoint. And if you don’t feel ready to make an offering because you haven’t published or are mid-degree or whatever, that’s okay, too, but be realistic about it: many great writing coaches don’t have MFAs, but you may not feel comfortable stepping into that field without one. Everyone is different, and respecting your own parameters is good. But so is pushing your own limits.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Idea Generation: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 10 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-9 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Oof. I am all kinds of behind this week. And I have missed the regularity of writing these posts. I have also already broken one of Friedman’s rules for building platform (more on that a little later in this series) but totally reneging on the schedule I built for myself.

Welp. If it helps any, it is partially because I went to the dentist. I believe that is all that needs to be said on a variety of levels.

But I digress. This week’s post almost came without a quote from Friedman’s book, because the information was so broad. What you need to know is that writing for magazines and periodicals—what Friedman terms “traditional freelance writing” is the subject here, and that

“By studying a publication carefully across two to three issues–or the span of a few weeks online–you can get a sense of what material is written by editors and what’s regularly assigned to freelancers.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 150.)

Friedman then goes on to list thirteen categories—types—of articles that might be assigned to freelancers over three pages. Over my career, I have pitched or written-for-hire all thirteen of these categories, and reflecting on those had me falling down a rabbit hole of nostalgia in which I remembered the era of my career when I spent entire days coming up with article ideas and then crafting pitches around them and landing some of them.

That time was, by far, one of the most productive of my life. I don’t do this any more, for a variety of reasons, the most significant being a change in the things I wanted to spend my time doing, obviously, but I honestly don’t think my brain has ever been happier. I look back now, me with my hyper-organized (by some measures) mock traveler’s notebook and my tri-color pen and my time tracker, and I wonder, how the hell did I do it?

Let me introduce you to the Fat Li’l Notebook.


First, a caveat. This is not the exact model I used back in my heyday. The one I prefer is actually called The Fat Li’l Neatbook, and it is so rare now that Amazon has it listed at nearly $6, whereas its cousin, this thing with the spiral binding and the therefore-raggedy pages when you tear them out, is just $3.

But you want to know what I did with this notebook. Well, let me tell you. I would take it to the Barnes and Noble, and I would sit down with it and get a stack of magazines that interested me, and then I would page through them all, loosely, and just let my brain run wild. Every time I got an idea for a story or a feature or whatever that might be good for a magazine, I’d write down a capsule description of the idea, and then I’d notate somwhere the magazines that idea might be good for.

I used one sheet per idea. Whenever I found sources or tangents that would add to that idea, flesh it out more, I would add it to that sheet of paper. Eventually I had something I could pitch, and then I would put together a few pitches and send that idea out.

And when I had completed an assignment or at least pitched it, I would either rip it out or cross out the page (I can’t remember which I did. There must have been a reason I preferred the version of the notebook without the spiral binding, but that could be either because I hated the feel of the thing OR because I tore out the pages; I don’t know.)

This method did two things: One, it allowed me to never run out of ideas; two, it made me feel smart whenever I paged through it. It made me full like I had a full, functioning brain.

This is not something that cannot be overstated.

See, some creatives are very, very good at beating ourselves up. We might have produced something lovely at some points in our lives, but there are the days when whole hours will go by, and we feel like we have done nothing. Hell, there may be weeks that go by without us feeling as if we have done anything worthwhile. And so, seeing a fat little notebook with something written on each page is a very valuable thing.

I don’t know what I did with that original notebook. I know there were still ideas in it that I hadn’t written up yet.

In fact, now that I’m remembering it, I may go back to this methodology. I get ideas for essays, short stories, things to pitch to outlets, all the time. But I’m no longer storing them anyplace, which means if I don’t find time to act on those ideas in a reasonable time period of having an idea, well, it just goes into the ether. This is not a good thing.

Anyway. I’ve digressed a little bit, but I do have some actionable tips for you:

  1. Write your ideas down someplace. (Duh.)
  2. Read widely. You never know which publication might jar an idea in you.
  3. Read the publications about the things that interest you. Your interests can easily become the areas in which you become an expert.
  4. When you come up with ideas, don’t overthink them. Just jot down things that interest you. Consider a good exercise for your brain.

That’s it for this week! On Friday, look for another post from this series.

What’s your favorite method of keeping track of ideas? Tell me in the comments below.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On a Writer’s Responsibility: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 9 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-8 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Whatever deadlines you’re given, respect them…authors are notorious for missing their deadlines…The worst thing you can do is let a deadline pass by in complete silence or avoid contact with your editor.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 129)

Dear Reader,

It. Is. Confession. Time. I have never, ever told this story in public, and I have never actually even told it out loud, I don’t think. It is the most mortifying thing to ever happen to me, and I did it to myself. I have zero excuses for it, but I lived to tell the tale so you don’t ever–ever–do something this stupid, this disrespectful, to anyone else.(Also, I should say that Friedman is specifically talking about working with book editors; this post is about working with a magazine editor, but it still applies.)*

It was 1999. I was 25. It was my first foray into freelancing, both writing and editing, and I had landed an absolute dream: a part-time editing job with a very well-respected trade publication, in a field I really cared about. The hourly rate was good, the hours were 20 hours a week, exactly what a young freelance writer needed to get her legs under her, and I had a lovely office to go to, with a cohort of people whose faces I still remember today.

I did a good enough job that when my contract ended, and the in-house editing team needed someone else to continue editing a specific section for the publication, they asked me. I said yes. I left the office feeling pretty good about myself.

And then the wheels fell off the goddamn wagon. I can’t really remember what my life circumstances were. I’m sure they were what any 20-something-living-in-New-York’s were: random parties accompanied by random hookups, probably a breakup somewhere in there, parental units 3,000 miles away wanting to know what the frick this “freelancing” was anyway, and where was the husband that would save me from my peripatetic “career,” whatever. I am sure I felt “overwhelmed” and like I warranted some “self care.”**

Whatever the hell it was, I then proceeded to do this:

I blew it off.

But Yi Shun, you say, gently, because I maybe look like I am about to throw up recounting this thing to you, Yi Shun, what do you mean you blew it off?

I mean exactly that. I full-on ghosted the assignment, ignored the deadline, did half the work, whatever.

It was awful. Every time I walked in from whatever it was I was doing (not editing, obviously), I avoided looking my answering machine in its little red blinking eye. I knew it would be my editor, with his gentle voice, asking to speak to me. And I can still picture him to this day: gentle voice, sad, downward-at-the-corners eyes, deeply understanding. If I had had my head screwed on straight, I’d have gone into the office, talked to him, told him I was unfit for the gig and to hire someone else.

If I could go back, I’d tell 25-year-old me this.

To this day, every time I see his last name (it’s not an uncommon one), I flinch a little.

I can’t remember exactly how we ended the relationship. I’m sure it ended badly for me. I don’t remember how I felt. I don’t remember if I actually completed the assignment, no matter how late it was.

Worse, although I never made this particular mistake again, I made a mistake similar to it later: I took an assignment I knew I wasn’t ready to take. That ended badly, too.

Since then, though, I haven’t done anything like either of these two circumstances. I’ve worked hard to overcome that memory of myself, although the experience of writing this has proven I’m not quite over it. The experience has also shaped who I am. If anything, I’m an overcommunicator now: if a thing *smells* like it’s going to be late, even, I ping my editor. And I expect the same of both my clients and the people I manage: if it *looks* like it’s going to be late/go off the rails, I want you to tell me.

This experience has also likely shaped me in a positive fashion, although I wish I’d learned this lesson in a way that didn’t come at the expense of someone else. The lesson I learned is this: Whatever it is, it is fixable. Whatever it is, we can make it work. Whatever it is, it will be okay.

I also learned this: If you feel like you can’t do something, it’s okay to pass it on to someone else. Spread the love. I do this a lot now, too.

I guess I’m okay, in the end. I do still wonder, every once in a while, what my career would look like now if I had done the right thing back then. But you could say that of a lot of choices I made in that early part of my working life. I think immaturity had something to do with it. But I’m glad I’m here to tell you about it. I’m glad that I can share this story with you now. I’m glad you are there to read my work, even though I was young and stupid and dangerous.

We’re almost at the end of this post. It has been the hardest 1000 words for me to write in a very long time. I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve told you. I see my editor at this trade publication is still working in this industry, and when I’m done here I may write to him and point him to this post and tell him how sorry I am, and how glad I am that he is doing the work he does now. He was nice. When someone does something stupid to make me angry and I have to remind myself to be nice, I channel this editor. And that will kick off the list of takeaways I have for you this time:

  1. Be nice. Niceness is underrated. Not everyone will remember you for it, but some people will, and in some cases it will change their lives.
  2. Be prepared to take a hard look at yourself. Whatever work you are being approached to do, be honest about your skillset and your capabilities and time commitments, even if it means losing the assignment.
  3. Be ready to pass the work onto someone else if you can’t complete it. Build a bank of people you trust whom you’re ready to pass the work onto. Offer your managers/editors a chance to get to know another great editor or writer.
  4. If you have to push back a deadline, communicate that. Give your editor plenty of time to act on this new deadline.
  5. Bonus lifeskill: Be considerate. I know, this sounds like People 101, but remember that every action you take is likely going to affect someone else. I don’t even want to know what knock-on effect my f*ckwittery had. I know it probably made some people’s lives harder.

Okay. That’s it for now. I am going to go open a box of Cheez-Its and inhale it. Thanks for reading. On Friday, come back for a peek into my freelancer’s brain, as we explore part of Friedman’s Chapter 17, “Traditional Freelance Writing.”

*Just to give you an idea of how awful this is, I have taken many breaks between the writing of this post’s title, and completing the post, and it will have been an hour since I wrote this first paragraph. Loathing. I am loathing this task. You want to never feel like this. So don’t do anything even remotely approaching this thing I am about to tell you/have told you about.

**More likely I was just arrogant.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.