Wednesday, July 27, 2011

It’s a Business

Several years ago, I was chatting with Susan Campbell Bartoletti at an SCBWI conference. After receiving acclaim for her nonfiction books Kids on Strike and Black Potatoes she had quit teaching, much as she loved it, to devote herself to writing full-time. “It’s hard,” she told me, “but for now I’m putting most of what I earn back into the business.”

It took me a moment to understand what she meant. Business? What business? I thought she was writing!

Oh. The writing business. I felt as foolish as the person who can’t figure out the answer to the old riddle about the man and his son who are in an accident, and when they get to the hospital, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on that child. He’s my son.” How can that be?*

The thing is, I wasn’t thinking about my writing as a business, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of investing in it.

A few years after that conversation with Sue, I was hard at work on my second novel. My husband told me he didn’t understand why I was writing something that didn’t have a publisher yet. I tried to explain that I had to finish it first, and then see if I could find someone to publish it. He still didn’t get it. Then I was inspired to borrow language I had heard him use: “I’m writing it on spec.”

This time he got it because I was using the language of business to talk about my writing, awkward as it felt. It still feels weird to use the vocabulary of commerce when I talk about what I do, but I need to get over it.

Because it is a business. If I were writing just for me, if I didn’t care if anyone but my immediate family and my friends ever saw my work, I wouldn’t have to change my mindset. But I do care. I do want people to read what I write. And that means that my books have to be published and then people have to buy them, which means they have to know about them, which means I have to think in terms of marketing and promotion.

So help me, please. What aspects of the business world have you found helpful when thinking about your work? I’ll get it started: "You have to spend money to make money." Advances are so low these days and royalties are so slow in coming that it seems hard to write a check as soon as I get a check, but that's my plan.

What other aspects of business should we apply to our writing careers?

P.S. Off-topic, but I'm pretty excited that my forthcoming novel, Dark of the Moon, was given a starred review in the Kirkus Reviews and a lovely review in School Library Journal

*The surgeon is, of course, the boy’s mother.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beyond the Burned Bridges

This week’s guest post is by author Patsi Trollinger.

Financial planning and freelance rates are hot topics among folks eager to say good-bye to the day job. But don’t overlook the Tolstoy factor. “Writers move forward,” he’s credited with saying, “by the light of bridges burning behind them.”

Ten years ago, my decision to leave a job as news director and campus spokesperson for a liberal arts college involved some bridge-burning. Within minutes after my resignation became public, people lined up to apply for the position. The job would not be waiting if I changed my mind. It was okay, I told myself. Jointly, my husband and I had ascertained that we would not starve or become homeless without my income. Individually, I could see dimly illumined professional future: part-time work in copywriting and hours devoted to writing children’s books. The copywriting position later evaporated, but by then I had freelance work and a book contract with a major publisher. Everything seemed headed in the right direction. I had made the right decision. But when my closest circle of family and friends entered a period of unprecedented challenges, I revisited my decision every day. Eventually, I lost all sense of the heat, light, and dramatic finality implied by Tolstoy.

Here’s the deal about being self-employed. There is no guarantee of “paid personal leave.” There is no boss lurking in the background delineating a work schedule. For me, this led to agonizing choices. Should I devote two hours to an urgent query letter or transport a very close friend to the oncologist who was trying (vainly) to save her life? Spend a week at my desk doing revisions or drive to Tennessee to sit by my father (and, later, my mother) in a hospice unit? Concentrate on three days of research for a picture-book biography or accompany my twin daughters for college admissions tours?

Such decisions are never easy, but for those of us who are self-employed, the calculus becomes more problematic. Every time we give up an hour or a day of work, we give up earning potential. When we return to our desks to do work that requires fierce concentration, it’s hard to stop thinking about the life-alteringor life-endingchoices facing people we love.

There is a great deal I can’t say with certainty about self-employment. In particular, I don’t possess the secret formula for securing a six-figure book deal. However, I can say that, in making one big decisionto leave a guaranteed income and a clearly defined structureyou enter a new environment that operates by a different set of rules. Be prepared to make new decisions every day

Patsi B. Trollinger is the author of Perfect Timing (Viking, 2006; Benjamin Press, 2011),  a Junior Library Guild selection. She also has written magazine articles, play scripts, and essays. She currently is focused on writing for children, but also does freelance writing, editing, and layout. During an earlier career devoted to news and public relations, she wrote about everything from tea parties to football. She earned her first publishing credits in high school while serving as a teen correspondent for the Kingsport (TN) Times-News.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Second-Guessing Myself

A few days ago, a friend alerted me to a recent post in an interesting-looking blog called "The Passive Voice," saying that a day job isn't necessarily a bad thing for a writer.

Then the same day I received the August, 2011 issue of The Writer and flipped right to an article entitled “The Best Day Jobs for Writers." I was pretty sure that my soon-to-be-former job would be included, and yup, there it was: no. 1: Teaching, and specifically, college teaching.

Shoot. If a blog by an intelligent person calls into question the whole idea of quitting one's day job, and then this venerable publication calls mine the best day job for writers, have I made a big mistake? I handed in my notice a full year before required, figuring this was only fair to the instructor who’s being brought in to fill in for a colleague going on sabbatical leave. She looks just terrific, and she should know that there’s a chance of the job lasting more than a year. But did I shoot myself in the foot?

I read the section about teaching, and found it realistic. The author doesn’t claim that a career teaching in a college is perfect. He warns that jobs in academe are in short supply, and he references low pay and the large amount of time spent in class prep and grading.

He could have mentioned the plight of the untenured, who frequently become "gypsy scholars," lasting for one or two years at a job, teaching the classes that nobody else wants, moving on to another position for another year or two, and so on, until the would-be professor’s credibility is shot (What? Ten years since you got your Ph. D. and all you’ve published is a few articles?—Never mind that she’s grading barely readable papers written in huge remedial classes, serving on time-consuming committees, coaching students the college accepted even though their skills aren’t up to those of their peers). Let me hasten to add that Vanderbilt has, on the whole, treated me well; I’ve been happily non-tenure-track for 27 years without suffering any (well, many) of those abuses.

The article’s author could also have mentioned that although a college professor’s schedule looks great on paper, there’s no flexibility. No sick days, no personal days. If you get the flu and miss a week of class, you have to figure out a way to duplicate the classroom experience for all your students. There isn’t a pool of substitutes to call on! If you get invited to speak at a library or school or even a conference, in many cases, you probably have to make up the classes you miss, or prevail on a stressed-out colleague to take your classes.

College professors get summers off only if they aren’t seeking tenure (usually relegating themselves to the status of gypsy scholar), or if they do have tenure yet aren’t interested in a promotion or salary raise. They also need to be earning a living wage that can stretch over the summer.

Usually, benefits for non-tenure-track faculty don’t extend past the end of the school year, so they need to either pay a huge COBRA bill or find secondary employment. That was my situation for my first few years at Vanderbilt, and I got to know the university's Temporary Services quite well!

And teaching shares one major drawback with writing: You never know when you’ve finished. That lesson plan or quiz or activity could always be polished, in the same way that the paragraph or poem you just wrote could be made better. You can never truly say that it’s done. Personally, I would think an ideal job for a writer would be something that you can leave behind at the end of the day.

So what is the ideal day job for a writer? Anybody have one?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Decade as a Full-Time Author

Guest blogger Holly Schindler discusses the importance of family support.

When I got my master’s in ’01, my mom invited me to stay home and devote my full-time efforts to getting a writing career off the ground (my lifelong dream). I figured it’d take a year or so to write a novel, then it’d sell (I was lucky enough to have placed poetry, short fiction, and literary critique in journals when I was in college, and was under the grand delusion that selling a manuscript would be a breeze for me), and in oh, two years or so, I’d have money in the bank, and I’d be off and running.

Okay, seriously. You can stop laughing now.

The truth is that it took seven and a half years just to get my first acceptance. In that time, my friends from college finished up PhDs, started teaching, doing research, became professionals. I often felt like all I had was a deep gash in the drywall where I’d spent months upon months banging my head against it.

And, let’s face it: I had guilt.

I cringe at the stereotypical portrait of the kid who’s living at home: the slacker who lays on the couch, playing video games, letting Mom do laundry, mooching, no sense of direction to speak of. That certainly has never been my life. I feel that your family is your family, regardless of what it consists of: your spouse and your children, or your siblings and parents. I participated in everything going on in my home: the upkeep, the repairs, the lawn, the floor-laying, the painting, the grocery shopping, the meal-planning…My office butts up against the laundry room, and, yes, I’ve always done my fair share of the laundry, as well

Still, though: the guilt. You aren’t a responsible adult without feeling the sting of not contributing financially (I did teach piano and guitar lessons, and everything I made went to paying off what few bills I had—I got out of college with no student loans). Still, though, no matter how much I contributed, I often felt it wasn’t enough. I butted heads with my mom about me finding work out of the house (she always talked me out of it). Instead, I worked, as we’d agreed, on my manuscripts: I created a floor-to-ceiling stack of them in those seven and a half years.

During those years, I learned to balance my writing with the comings and goings of a household. I can fix a lawnmower with one hand and outline a novel with another. I also learned that my greatest first reader is also the same person who insisted I stay home to write in the first place (Mom’s a great titler, too—she was the first to suggest the titles for both my published books). And when the triumphs finally arrived—selling a book, seeing my first book on a store shelf, getting the starred review, receiving a few lit prizes—my mom and brother, who had been my support, my sounding board for project ideas, my first set of eyes, took pride in it, too. They had a hand in it.

Come on—getting started is beyond rough. Everybody has to have some sort of help when they set out to forge a writing career. Now, when I step inside a library or a bookstore, I think there’s not just one person behind each of those titles, but a whole group of them—in addition to the writer, there’s some combination of parent, sibling, partner, spouse, etc., who supported that writer as they got started. It’s pretty incredible, when you stop to think about it…

Holly is the creator and moderator of Smack Dab in the Middle, a group blog whose contributors are authors of middle-grade books, and the author of Playing Hurt and A Blue so Dark.
Star basketball player Chelsea “Nitro” Keyes had the promise of a full ride to college—and everyone’s admiration in her hometown.  But everything changed senior year, when she took a horrible fall during a game. Now a metal plate holds her together and she feels like a stranger in her own family.
As a graduation present, Chelsea ’s dad springs for a three-week summer “boot camp” program at a northern Minnesota lake resort.  There, she’s immediately drawn to her trainer, Clint, a nineteen-year-old ex-hockey player who’s haunted by his own traumatic past.  As they grow close, Chelsea is torn between her feelings for Clint and her loyalty to her devoted boyfriend back home.  Will an unexpected romance just end up causing Chelsea and Clint more pain—or finally heal their heartbreak?
Fifteen-year-old Aura Ambrose has been hiding a secret. Her mother, a talented artist and art teacher, is slowly being consumed by schizophrenia, and Aura has been her sole caretaker ever since Aura’s dad left them. Convinced that “creative” equals crazy, Aura shuns her own artistic talent. But as her mother sinks deeper into the darkness of mental illness, the hunger for a creative outlet draws Aura toward the depths of her imagination. Just as desperation threatens to swallow her whole, Aura discovers that art, love, and family are profoundly linked—and together may offer an escape from her fears.