Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Fee Conundrum

For several years, I worked very part-time as a freelance copy editor on foreign-language college textbooks. It didn’t pay much, but it was interesting, and besides, I just love making sure that commas are in the right place, and ensuring that if a photo caption says that Juan and Miguel are sitting by a fountain, the photo shows two guys and water. I’ve also done translation from Italian to English, and had a few interpreting jobs (once in a courtroom, which was fascinating).

So when I’m thinking of ways to earn a bit of money after next May 11, these writing-related activities occur to me.

The major problem is—how do I decide what to charge?

I’ve read a lot of articles on charging for freelance writing, and I just can’t wrap my mind around the most common advice: Figure out how much you need to earn, divide that by how many hours you’re going to work, and then set that as your hourly rate.

Huh? How do I know how many hours I’m going to work? Forty a week is unrealistic; if I were going to do that, I might as well stay in my teaching job and get health insurance and an IT department that will fix my computer when it seizes up. Ten hours? Twenty? And just because I want to work X number of hours, I have no idea if I actually will.

A fee per word is unrealistic too.  A word of legalese takes much longer to translate than a word in an instruction manual. Sometimes you don’t know until you get into something how difficult it will be.

And as for how much I need to earn—I suppose I could come up with a minimum, but who wants to earn their minimum?

Some professional organizations publish recommended fees, but often you have to belong to the organization in order to get access to those lists. I can’t afford the dues for all of them, and anyway, the range of fees is huge. Where do I fit?

So, those of you who do this—how do you decide what to ask? How much negotiating are you open to?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

This cautionary tale comes courtesy of Edie Pagliasotti.

Hooray! I got laid off and now I can write full time!

Yep, that was my mantra, and I was one happy camper. I was laid off from Paramount Pictures in 2008, after working as the administrative assistant to the president of Motion Picture Distribution for eighteen years. Our department negotiated the pricing and booked our films into theaters around the country and overseas. It was a great job. But what I really wanted to do was to write for children.

I had the good fortune to work for my boss as his private secretary until his one-year contract was up with the studio. I was moved out of my office and was sequestered into another office at Raleigh Studios across from Paramount. Fine by me. My boss decided to work from home. Rarely did he ever stop by our new digs. I literally revamped this office into my private writing office, complete with framed horse pictures, a large white board, scattered pictures of sand cats, inspirational desk doodads, etc. I even had my own filing cabinet. During that year, I got a great deal of research done on my nonfiction picture book manuscript, Under a Carpet of Sand/The Wild Sand Cat. And, boy did that year fly by!

Once the year had passed, I packed up this office and went home. I was now truly-really-finally laid off. Hooray! I can write full time!

The thing I was most nervous about in working from home (having never done so), was would I be disciplined enough to get the work done, and not sit on the couch eating Cheetos and watching Oprah? I surprised myself.

My work pattern was to shower, dress, and be at my desk by 8:00 a.m. I took an hour off for lunch. If I was having a good writing day, I would work until 3:00 p.m. If my brain was mush after four hours of working, then I took myself off to the library, or read, or swam, or walked, but never did I watch TV (odd…). I had never been happier in my life.

Then the money began to sputter. And here is where I made my mistake. I was so determined to write full-time that I did not consult with my financial advisor on whether this plan was feasible or not, in the long-term. I did not spend one moment on financial forecasting. Seven months later, when I finally met with my financial advisor, he gently advised me “to deal with reality” and informed me that I would have to return to a full-time job. My life as a full-time writer was over. I had simply retired too soon.

In Hollywood, timing is everything. I returned to the workforce (disgruntled to begin with) just when the economy was taking a nosedive. It seemed every business and studio in Los Angeles had a hiring freeze on. Finally, I did find another job at the Los Angeles Police Federal Credit Union – and even today I consider myself one of the lucky ones to be working.

I look back on my stint as a full-time writer working at home as one of the best things that ever happened to me. I knew that once I could truly-really-finally leave my day job I would have the discipline necessary to sift through mountains of arduous research, the energy necessary to revise and polish manuscripts until they shined, and the courage to believe in myself and send only my best work to publishing houses. That was a worthy goal to achieve!

Oh, and my nonfiction picture book, Under a Carpet of Sand/The Wild Sand Cat, was judged “Most Promising” nonfiction manuscript at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Ventura/Santa Barbara Region’s Writer’s Day. Two publishing houses have expressed interest. Hooray! I can still write in my spare time!

Edie Pagliasotti has been Co-Regional Advisor of the SCBWI Los Angeles Region for the past ten years. She is stepping down as RA in October to spend more time on writing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Praise of Procrastination

Now that summer has settled in, I’m getting a taste of what my post-teaching writing day will be like. I’ve had these “tastes” every summer, of course, but I never really paid that much attention before, because I always knew that I’d be going back to the classroom the next year, and the year after that. That’s changed now. This is my last summer break. So I’m trying to be aware of what works and what doesn’t, so I have some dos and don’ts for the future.

One thing that makes me uneasy is that I’m not sitting at my desk and writing for eight hours every day. Isn’t that what real writers do? Can I justify not working at a “real” job if I’m not working full-time at writing?

So I’ve been keeping busy in other ways, including catching up on my reading. I’ve finally gotten around to a book that I’ve heard about for a while, Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Some of his tips are tried and true, some I’ve already tried and didn’t find useful, and a surprising number were strategies I hadn’t seen before (surprising because I read LOTS of books of this type, subscribe to The Writer, attend conferences, etc.). Many of these look good enough that I'm going to try them.

One really struck a chord, not as something to try, but as validation of something I already do: “TOOL 41: Turn procrastination into rehearsal. Plan and write it first in your head.” Clark talks about the self-doubt that comes when we stare out the window—or make a Starbucks run or obsessively check email or whatever—when we feel we should be writing. But instead of the usual tip about how to force yourself to buckle down, Clark says, “What would happen if we viewed this period of delay not as something destructive, but as something constructive, even necessary? What if we found a new name for procrastination? What if we called it rehearsal? . . . We all rehearse, and that includes writers. Our problem is that we call it procrastination or writer’s block.”

I’ve always known that I get a lot of writing done when it looks like all I’m doing is working on a sudoku puzzle or walking the dog or checking my Amazon numbers. But somehow I feel guilty if I’m not seeing letters appear on the screen in front of me, as though what I’m doing is, as Clark says, destructive.

I feel better about it now and will embrace those times as constructive instead. When someone comes into my study while I’m playing Spider Solitaire and asks what I’m doing, I’ll say loftily, “I’m rehearsing. What are you doing?”

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

To-do List

For years, a friend of mine worked several time-consuming and mind-numbing jobs in an effort to get her silversmith husband’s career off the ground. When his career finally took off, it did so in a big way. She was able to quit working, and they bought a house with a separate studio on the property. This was to be my friend’s space in which to do whatever she wanted.

The problem with that was that she found herself at a loss for how to use it. “There used to be things I liked to do,” she said to me in despair. “I just don’t remember what they were!”

This was many years ago, but I’ve never forgotten how unhappy she was and how long it took her to find a satisfying way to fill her time. You can't work all the time—or maybe you can, but who would want to?

Ever since I’ve been contemplating retirement, every time I thought something would be fun to do if I only had the time, I added that activity—no matter how silly or far-fetched it sounded—to a list.

I recently took a look at that list. Not surprisingly, most of the activities on it involve writing or reading, and the rest encompass other creative activities. These aren’t intended as money-making schemes, but ways to keep active and not stagnate. Included are:
  • volunteering with literacy programs
  • researching, writing, and self-publishing a book to be distributed to children in a particular situation that an expert told me is underserved (sorry to be so cagy, but I’m still mulling that one)
  • setting up and participating in writers’ retreats
  • going to the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna
  • taking voice lessons
  • taking basic drawing lessons
  • joining a knitting group
  • checking out Nashville’s award-winning volunteer organization, Hands On Nashville

Those of you who have successfully quit your day job—what worked for you? How much pre-planning did you do?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Guest post by Michele Corriel

This week I’m out of town doing a marathon of school visits in Sarasota, Florida. My friend Michele Corriel has graciously agreed to do a guest post.

I used to have a day job. I got up in the morning, shoved breakfast in my mouth and in the mouths of my family and scooted out the door into traffic to show up at an office. The good part was that I got a monthly paycheck. The bad part … well, you know the bad part.

That was almost ten years ago.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love my job. I was a journalist and a pretty good one. I’d won tons of awards. But one day the person who owned the newspaper (yes, it was owned by one person!) sold the paper. So it was either join a conglomerate whose only care was to improve the bottom line or go out on my own.

I decided, with encouragement from a friend, to try freelance writing. This would allow me to write from home, manage my own time, work on my novels, and get paid. And although I’ve had a few bumps along the way, I’ve never looked back. Almost every year since I started freelancing I’ve made about the same amount of money I made while working at the newspaper. But it wasn’t easy.

Nobody told me when you first start freelancing you need to take every job that comes along. I wrote for bridal shows, Christmas catalogs, community newsletters, animal shelters, basically I wrote for anybody who would pay me. But I also made great headway on my own work, which kept me writing all that other junk. It also got me a great reputation. I never missed a deadline. I never handed in anything without quotes from reliable sources. And, no matter how much someone paid me, I never sent off anything that wasn’t the best thing I could write about that subject.

I started to send out queries to magazines I wanted to write for … and I got assignments from them, too. In fact, for a few years I had a regular art column in Frontier Airlines’ magazine, wild blue yonder.

With all that under my belt I seriously started to work on a novel I’d been thinking about. And I’d gotten myself into excellent writing shape. By that I mean I’d organized my day to produce as much work as I could in the time I had. I had to be finished by 3 pm to pick my daughter up from school and get her to swimming. So I woke up early, got my husband and my daughter out the door, and got up to my office by 9 am every day. I’d break for lunch (one hour) and then finish up by 3 or so. I still keep this schedule although I don’t have to pick my daughter up anymore (she’s driving!).

My secret to a successful writing life is to know my own strengths and weaknesses: I’m more creative in the morning and more able to do drudgery work (transcribing interviews, editing work or taking notes) in the afternoons. And I always find time for an hour of reading. It’s very important to feed your reading brain.

Last year I had my first middle grade novel published and my next book will be out in 2012. I obtained a great agent and as my freelance work levels off my personal writing increases.

Michele Corriel lives and writes in Belgrade, Montana, where she is also the Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her debut middle-grade novel, FAIRVIEW FELINES: A NEWSPAPER MYSTERY (Blooming Tree/Tire Swing Press) came out last fall. Her second book, WEIRD ROCKS (Mountain Press), will be out Spring 2012. She is represented by The McVeigh Agency.