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Getting Around to the "Good Stuff"

by Marcia Yudkin

I'll never forget the time a freelance newspaper reporter and magazine writer blessed with a constant flow of assignments confessed to me that his bounty had a dark side: "I feel trapped at this level of success," he said. "There's a book in my head that I've wanted to write for years, but to get to do it I've got to take a month or two of uncompensated time away from assignments and I can't afford that."

Since that conversation I've observed his dilemma afflicting other writers, and occasionally myself. Many of us have a "dream project" that stays on the back burner because it won't bring in enough money to speak of up front, or maybe ever. But some of us do find ways to forge ahead on what's closest to our hearts nevertheless.

Here are seven time management, financial or career strategies that can make it easier to dodge the treadmill of income-producing work to devote time to the writing we'd prefer to be known for.

1. Figure out a way to get paid for your research. A woman working on the proposal for a guidebook on historical ethnic tours of Boston toted up the expenses she thought she'd incur to complete the book. "$28,000," she told me. She was flummoxed when I told her few publishers would allocate money for her research expenses in addition to an advance, which would likely be only a fraction of that amount, besides. A solution: to parcel the contents of her book into paid magazine articles first - retaining the right, of course, to use the material again.

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Brad Swift of Flat Rock, North Carolina, didn't plan this strategy deliberately but found it occurring as his series of interviews and profiles of individuals making a difference in the world evolved into the idea for a book on pursuing a passionate purpose in life. "I'll revise material I used in an article for Yoga Journal on simple living to serve as the introduction to my book," he said. "And there's a lot of material from my interviews that I can recontextualize for the book. Some magazines covered my interview expenses, and in one case I did a lot more research than I would have otherwise, knowing I'd be able to use it in the book."

2. Divide your time into income-producing and non-income-producing segments so that the first supports the second. Texas writer Cindi Myers spends weekdays on newspaper and magazines assignments that pay the bills and evenings on writing novels. "It's a great symbiotic relationship in that the nonfiction will spark ideas for fiction, and research for fiction will lead to nonfiction articles. An article I wrote for Persimmon Hill magazine on Lucy Johnson Williams, the 'Cattle Queen of Texas,' sparked the idea for Patchwork Hearts, my first novel, to be published by Berkley in February 1999. Research for Patchwork Hearts in turn led to other articles for Quilts Magazine and Persimmon Hill."

Although the usual way to do this involves setting aside certain hours or days of the week for one's pet project, I've heard of other arrangements. One writer who took a seminar from me years ago made her living as a contract programmer, and would program like crazy for six months a year and then live off that money the other six months writing full time.

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Marshfield, Massachusetts freelancer Erik Sherman points out that with adroit management of your working hours, there's often more time available for the fun stuff than otherwise. "You have to schedule work efficiently and move from one job to the next, even in one day, so your time is spent profitably," he says. "That fun project may require fitting in some here, some there. For example, my short fiction is going together 200-300 words at a time. If you keep chipping away, even a glacier can be turned into ice cubes."

3. Take or create a part-time job that covers living expenses and spend the rest of your time on your project. Deep into the pre-contract stage of his book, Brad Swift began working around 15 hours a week supervising a local dining hall. "Partly it's a way to get more involved with our community," he explained, "and the weekly paycheck helps ease my inner turmoil about income while working on the book."

Novelist Emily Hanlon of Yorktown, New York, who once received hefty advances for novels such as Petersburg, has continued writing novels for 10 years with no advances by using a variation on this strategy. Hanlon set up ongoing writing workshops and classes on her own, sticking with them even when only two people signed up for a class and raising the price to a level that would support her. 

"I doubled the price, to the point where it made me nauseated, but it worked," she recalls. "You have to take a risk and be willing to hustle, to let lots of people know what you do," she adds.

Like Cindi Myers, Hanlon compartmentalizes her time. Mornings she devotes to fiction, never answering the phone or returning calls until after 1 p.m. Her workshops and classes take place afternoons and evenings.

For Robin DeMattia, the supplemental part-time job is itself the project close to her heart. DeMattia had volunteered for several years at Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo, helping with education and special events, and made it clear that if they could ever free up funds for public relations, she'd love the position. Now she works there six hours a week.

"After I've spent the morning editing health news, interviewing fast food restaurant owners, or doing other typical writing work, it's tremendous fun to head to the zoo and interview a keeper about the mating habits of the Howler monkeys or the plight of the endangered Siberian tiger," she says. "Ever pet a chinchilla or talk to an Amazon parrot? With this job I'm not just working to pay the bills."

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4. Use predictable or unexpected slow periods to work on your pet project. Unless I'm working on a book contract, for example, I know that December tends to be my slowest month and that everything will pick up again in January. So for several Decembers in a row, I've taken a "sabbatical," working happily and guiltlessly on personal essays or other writing less likely to be lucrative. 

By having this strategy in your head, you're able to think, "Oh goody! Things have slowed down, and I can work on my favorite stuff now" instead of moaning and tearing your hair out over the possibility that you might never get another assignment or contract.

Similarly, I know numerous writers laid off from salaried work who used their allotted time on unemployment compensation to get started in freelancing rather than apply seriously for jobs. Knowing that their initial efforts might not bear fruit for months was easier with the cushion provided by those weekly checks.

5. Hole up at a low-cost or subsidized writer's retreat. I spent June 1989 writing non-remunerative short stories at the Cummington Community of the Arts in Western Massachusetts. I paid a few hundred dollars for a month's room and board with my own room, no telephone or daytime distractions and cooking and cleanup largely taken care of. 

One fellow writer had received reimbursement from the college where she taught to cover even the low fee charged for the month, and one composer there had entirely given up having any normal home base to spend several months at a time at one retreat center, then another.

There are scores of such artists' colonies scattered throughout the country in addition to the most famous ones such as Yaddo and MacDowell. An search turned up two directories, one by Gail Hellund Bowler and the other by Tricia Snell, containing complete details on retreat centers for writers and artists.

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6. Apply for grants. Tim Harper, who has published commercially viable books on international trade and travel, decided to write a book on the changing roles of mothers and fathers in parenting and the family structure. "The topic is considered important, but I've only found a university press that is enthusiastic about it. I think there's a decent chance I'll get enough grant money from a private foundation or government institute to make up for the kind of modest advance I'd need to do a project that is dear to my heart but I cannot afford to do completely on spec."

7. Dip into your savings. Sometimes the only course of action seems simply putting your money where your heart is. One environmental writer confided in me that he'd spent $7,000 of his savings to fly to another continent to complete the research for a book that he thought he'd get a contract for, only to see all interest from book editors evaporate upon his return. Although he was able to sell three magazine pieces from his trip, the effort produced a net loss.

I'm not sure that that's really a cautionary tale, however. When we stay in the realm of the sure thing, we're more likely to find ourselves caught in a vicious circle of sticking with what we could do in our sleep. 

Risks are inevitable companions of the challenges that bring about the growth, change and development that most of us craved when we became writers in the first place. Some will lead to dead ends while others advance our careers in exciting new directions.

Copyright 1998 Marcia Yudkin. All rights reserved.  

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