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Thursday, May 13, 2010

No Experience, No Contacts, No Degree, and No Clue: A Beginning

I launched my fulltime freelance career on January 1, 1997. I’ll let you in on a secret—it wasn’t because I’d dreamed of being a fulltime writer and I certainly had never thought about running my own business. I had spent almost five and a half years as an attorney, and I hated it. Maybe not every minute, but certainly most of them. I’d majored in rhetoric in college, then gone to law school on a whim and thirty thousand dollars’ worth of loans. Three years’ later, I found myself practicing law with no clue of what I was supposed to do. As I slowly figured it out, I realized it wasn’t for me.

When I started writing again, I penned short stories featuring unhappy female lawyers (all fiction, really!) and sent them out to various women’s magazines. (Back in the mid-90s, nearly all of the big women’s mags—Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping—ran fiction. Typically at least one or two short stories and often a novella. Times have changed.) I never got anything published. Then an epiphany occurred. Most magazines are filled, not with fiction, but with nonfiction. I should be writing articles, not short stories! So I did…and I sold my first piece to Cosmo.

Rookie that I was, I didn’t even use a query letter. I wrote the article and sent it in. (Nope, I don’t recommend this technique.) Then I sold a piece to Bride’s. And I thought, hey, this freelancing thing isn’t that hard! Maybe I could do this…fulltime! I could escape from the law!

So I did. I saved up enough to live on for six months, enlisted the support of my live-in boyfriend (who was so sick of hearing me whine about my job he would supported any career change be it pole dancing or dog walking), and gave my two-week notice. I'd never taken a journalism class. I knew no one in the publishing industry--I'd never even met another freelancer. And I had no idea of what I would actually be doing during the day. (Hmmm...this is sounding a lot like how I launched my legal career.)

This was my plan: pen articles for magazines to make a little money while I wrote my novel. (That's another story.)

My goal? To make $10,000 my first year. And to never have to go back to the law. That was the extent of my business plan.

It took me about 18 months and literally hundreds of queries (and eventually, dozens of assignments) to build enough momentum where I wasn’t scanning the want ads for part-time jobs to support my writing habit. But I had lots of energy, lots of Diet Mountain Dew, and a type-A, driven personality I’ve been blessed (or cursed) with since childhood. And I had time—lots of time. I could devote 50, 60 hours a week or more to my new business—and I did.

I was willing to take on assignments that paid minimal amounts of money to gain clips and experience. I was willing to spend every evening flipping through dozens of magazines analyzing markets, and to pitch dozens of markets simultaneously, hoping for sales. I was willing to pitch, and pitch, and pitch an editor until she gave me an assignment...or I finally gave up on the market after maybe a dozen tries. And all that time paid off…eventually.

But here’s the thing. I no longer have that kind of time. Who does? I have two (perfect, adorable, darling) children under the age of five. A maniac golden retriever. A husband I love…who has his own demanding job. Wonderful amazing friends I want to spend time with. Family I actually like—and want to spend time with! And a never-ending pile of laundry.

Plus I have this business, remember? This writing/ghostwriting/speaking business I’ve built from scratch? And I need to make decent money from it. So I have to make the most of my minutes—and I’ve learned how to do it through trial and more errors than I’d like to admit.

There are thousands of blogs about writing, but fewer that address writing for a living. (Don't worry--I'll direct you to some great ones!) This blog won’t just address writing for a living, but writing and working efficiently. When I hit the six-figure mark six years into my career (which led to my second book on writing, Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money), I actually was working about 30-35 hours/week—far less than I did when I started out. Today, I work part-time hours (I have a sitter—otherwise it would be impossible!) but make a fulltime living during that time. That, in essence, is my business plan now.

How? I specialize. I retain as many rights to my work as possible. I develop long-term relationships with clients. I sell reprints. I ghostwrite. I collaborate. I look for opportunities to resell work I’ve already created—as long as I own the rights to it, of course.

And it works. I may not be the most talented writer out there. I may not make the most money. (I have friends who make six figures, and well above that, on a regular basis.) But I bet I’m one of the most efficient writers out there—and you can be too. Come along for the ride—learn how to make the most of your minutes, make more money for your words, and spend less time at your PC. I promise you’ll learn new ways of working, of thinking, and new ways of connecting that will help you make more money for your nonfiction writing work. I hope you’ll join me!