I did what sensible people advise against and jumped into writing full-time. My dream is establish a freelance career writing about nature, science, and pets during the day and learn enough about fiction to write publishable novels by night.
I’m much closer to making a living as a writer than I was eight years ago. More than 400 of my articles have been published in local, regional, and national print, and web publications. I’ve written four books that have been published, with three more coming this year.
How I Got Started
Three of my books have been works for hire. The opportunity to write those books came from networking at a professional association conference. Every walk of life has a professional association, and so I joined the Dog Writers’ Association of America and the Cat Writers’ Association. These organizations helped me learn from people who were succeeding at what I wanted to do and gave me ideas about publications to approach and other educational opportunities, including a conference.
The conference was a key moment. For two years, I had been writing for local and regional publications. For the “pitch sessions” at the conference, I prepared a notebook of clips, a resume, and a list of article topics that I thought each individual editor would like. I wore a suit. When I got to the conference, I met with every pet publication’s editor, whether I had a story for them or not. I made a professional-looking personalized handout for each editor. By the time the conference ended, I had no assignments, but I had met six editors. Two months later I made follow up telephone calls to each of the six editors. One of them needed an author for a book on parrots. I got the job.
Work for Hire
Work for hire is an excellent start because you usually write for a book series that has an established outline and word count. The series editor knows what he wants and other books in the series guide you. You know how long your work will take, approximately, and what you’ll be paid. If you do a good job and meet your deadlines, that editor will likely use you again, if you ask. I turned in a manuscript on time with facts double checked. And, I asked for another assignment and followed up for a year until I got one. I’ve completed two other books for this editor, and am working on a third. In addition, he has been generous in his recommendation of my work to others.
Back to the professional organization. I read an article by an agent in the Dog Writers’ Newsletter explaining what she looked for in pitches from writers. I sent her an e-mail query, mentioning my work-for-hire experience and proposing to send her a one-page query for a book project. She accepted and I sent the query. The agent disliked the proposed project, but telephoned to discuss other ideas I had. We found an idea we both liked; I wrote a proposal for “Pets and the Planet: A Practical Guide to Sustainable Pet Care.” My agent, Kate Epstein, sold that book to Wiley.
What’s My Point?
Each action leads to opportunity only when writers follow up, improve their writing and interviewing skills, submit queries ad nauseum, expect fewer than one of ten queries to be accepted, and write for several hours each day, whether or not they have paying gigs.
Once underway, a writer needs to put a foot on the accelerator. For example, in the last five years I’ve also earned an MFA, had quite a bit of poetry published including a book of poetry coauthored with three other women, written four unpublished novels, had my first short stories published, and written a fifth novel that I will send out shortly looking for representation. I have joined Willamette Writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the National Association of Science Writers. I read their newsletters and followed up on the jobs and conferences posted on their member websites.
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing
You must market constantly, whether or not you have the time. I have a website and two blogs, a Facebook page, and a Twitter page. I also do appearances, distribute post cards, offer classes, pester my friends to tell their friends about my books, and send out newsletters. Many weeks I despair that no one listens or cares. Nevertheless, I do it.
Fortunately, I had the good sense to hire a couple of students to help me with this work. Yes, I know that’s a cost, but there is a cost in not having a professional presence. Presence takes time and literary citizenship. For example, you can help your friends market their books and offer a vacant couch to touring authors in your professional association. As a result, you build friendships and referral networks. By attending local readings and taking people with you to those readings, you help build an audience for that author’s work and help support the bookstores that can recommend books to the community. When your book is ready, the bookstores are more likely to hold a reading for you.
The Writer’s Life
I’ve come to believe that writing is not an activity or a profession, but a way of life. People who succeed believe they have a “mission” or a “calling” to tell stories or help the public learn more about their subject. That passion is what propels the writer through the un-encouraging circumstances that most of us face. The confidence— to progress, to continue writing—must come from within us. And this confidence builds from living a writing life: working with other writers, hearing their stories, attending their workshops, and continuously reading widely about your part of the industry as well as the books (or articles) that occupy the same market space as yours do—or wish yours did. Read something; then show what you learned in your next piece of work, to paraphrase poet Marvin Bell.
Keep Moving Forward
If my writing life had proceeded as I planned, I would have written a series mystery in the first year, had it sell well, and already have written another four of them. My path has been nothing like that. My four mysteries are in notebooks on my archive shelves, probably never to see the light of day. My first books are about pets, nature, and ecology. That was not my plan. Nevertheless, I’m building a career, step by step, by associating with professionals, taking advantage of opportunities, and continuing to live my writing life. Your path won’t be my path, but I hope you in reading this you will find your next step forward.
Let me know how a writer’s life is working for you. You can post a comment on www.carolfrischmann.com.