The Zen of a Writer’s Finances: Cheating the Feast or Famine Cycle

Am I kidding? “Writer’s finances” and “zen” in the same sentence?

For most writers I know, talking about the financials of how we make a living is completely antithetical to feeling calm and zen-like. There’s the stress of finding paying gigs. Of selling stories. Of late checks. Of deadbeat clients.

Things are messy and complicated, and far too close to the edge of total ruin than most of us would like to admit.

Maybe you’ve already seen this Salon article about writers who are sponsored by their well-off partners. If not, give it a read. It’s thoughtful – and thought-provoking.

I’m not pointing you there to start a bitchfest about how we can’t all have rich partners or parents to support our writing habits (although in my case having a second income has made my transition to freelancing loads easier than it would have been otherwise). Rather, I think the author, Ann Bauer, has a good point.

Writers don’t talk often enough about the money side of our art.

We get jealous of the 6-figure incomes of freelancers who now make most of their salary selling informational products. We assume Nebula and Hugo winners must be living the high life of leisurely writing days broken only by trips to the bank to deposit royalty checks. We think if only we can break into the Huffington Post we’ll be rich (they don’t pay, people!).

But here’s the thing.

I LOVE talking about money.

I’m that person in our relationship who likes to budget down to the cent and figure out income and expense. I run numbers constantly. I really like sitting down with my husband to talk about our budget. I read blogs about interest rates. I was ecstatic when our bank (BECU) came out with a new money management tool that ran automatic reports! And had color-coded budgets!

My husband used to think I obsessed about our finances in order to stress myself out, but it’s really not that. I do it because it’s a comfort to know exactly what’s going on.

Today I’m sharing my obsession with my writing business finances with you, in the hopes that it’ll help someone else who’s just getting started see how I do things. I’m constantly tinkering, so if you have any advice to share, please please please leave it in the comments!

C’mon, writers! Let’s talk about money!

Part 1: Setting Up Your Finances

I’m not going to lie – it’s a feast or famine out there. I’ve had horrible lean stretches that would have had me on the street if I didn’t have the luxury of a husband with a (mostly) steady paycheck, or a squirreled-away savings account for the low times.

But even though that feast or famine cycle is never going to change, I’ve tried to set myself up to weather it as best as I can.

1. Budget, budget, budget

If you’re going to live on a variable income, you absolutely need to know your budget. I’m not talking about using an envelope system or anything like that – though you certainly can if you want to. I’m talking about being honest about where you’re spending your money every month.

Because I track our spending, I know exactly which payments we can stop, luxuries we can scrimp on, and items we can sell off (*ahembikes*) if we need extra help on the rent this month.

Part of budgeting is figuring out where you can cut back to take the stress off. It’s knowing what you have to pay, and what you’re paying out of preference. It’s knowing that eating beans and rice instead of going out a few nights a week means $400 less a month that you have to drum up in client work.

2. Pay yourself a set salary

The best thing I ever did for my finances was to set up a business checking account. I deposit every writing-related check into that account, I transfer 35% of the amount into a separate savings account for taxes, and then I pay myself a set salary on the 1st and 15th every month.

This does two things:

First, it lets you budget your personal life, knowing that you’ll be receiving a set paycheck twice a month. Especially once you’ve built up a buffer, setting up your finances this way smooths out your income. Now, even though your client may be late on their check, you’re not late on your rent.

Second, it puts any surplus out of reach. If you had a great month, let your business treat yourself to a nice dinner or buy you a bonus bottle of Deschutes anniversary ale – after all, you’re your own boss, and you should treat yourself when you’ve done a good job. But don’t be tempted to spend that extra cash, because when next month is slim pickings you’ll have nothing to draw on for your salary.

My business account is as sacred as a company credit card. Would you buy groceries or go to a movie on your company’s dime? No way in hell. Set up an automatic transfer for your salary, then treat your business account like it’s your boss’s money. Because it is.

3. Build up recurring work

The best peace of mind you can have is a recurring base of income. Whether that’s a job waiting tables, a steady blogging client or two, or regular income from published books, this is crucial to smoothing out the feast or famine cycle.

Right now I have a pretty standard base I can rely on every month, thanks to several clients who give me regular work. Without them, each month would be a nail-biter of a blank slate. With them, I know at least I’ve got groceries covered if everything else is crickets.

What I’m working on at this point is building up a regular passive income, as well. I get regular beer money from my bike crafting ebook, and I plan to publish several novels this year that I can hopefully start to build on. I have no illusions that I’ll make it rich yet, but each drop of water helps, right?

Part 2: Getting Clients To Pay You

Cool. You’ve got things figured out on your end, right? Now how do you get clients to pay?

That can be tough. As I write this, I’ve invoiced more for January than I have for each of the last 6 months – but I still can’t pay my own salary for February 1st because 90% of those invoices are still outstanding. Ideally, I’d have a buffer built up so that it wouldn’t matter, but I just don’t at this point. (No judging, right?)

So how do you get your hard-earned money?

None of the invoices I mentioned above are overdue – just some clients take a while to get the paychecks cut. Weeks and weeks and weeks. All you can do is sit and wait.

But once they become overdue? The instant I see in Freshbooks that they’re past the 30-day terms (which is written on my invoice, as well as in my contract), I email my contact to gently remind them that I haven’t seen the cash.

I recently heard someone say he puts clause in his contract that the copyright doesn’t transfer to the client until he gets paid in full. I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s totally brilliant, and I’ll definitely be adding that in for the future.

Getting paid:

1. If they’re regular clients, and you regularly get paid…

Just ask what happened this time.

Most of my client contacts aren’t in charge of payroll, so making sure I get paid is pretty far down on their list of priorities. They probably forwarded my invoice on and accounts payable missed it. Or they forgot to forward it on, because they were too excited about the new blog post series I turned in.

Whatever the reason, once I’ve brought it to their attention that I haven’t been paid yet, they’re generally a) mortified, and b) quick to take care of it.

If you’re having issues with a regular but otherwise awesome client, ask your contact for the accounts payable person. That way you can contact them directly about payment holdups, and keep your relationship with your primary contact free from money troubles.

2. If they’re new clients…

Assume the best and shoot them a followup email. Ideally with new clients I try to get a deposit up front, but unless they seem like total skeezeballs during our initial interactions, I generally assume my clients are good-yet-absentminded people. I’ve yet to be proven wrong. (Knock on wood.)

As a general rule, you should get half up front with new clients. If they balk at that, you should probably balk at putting in an entire project’s worth of work for free. They don’t trust you? Don’t trust them.

3. If you’re having problems with payment every time…

Get out of that relationship!

Please don’t work for people who don’t have their financial shit together. If they seem sketchy and are holding up paying you, fire them and find another client. If you have to hunt down your payment every single time, drop ’em like a rattlesnake before you get bit in the ass.

I used to have a friend who waited tables at a restaurant, and would literally run to the bank each payday to deposit the check, because if he was one of the last on the payroll to do so, his paycheck would most likely bounce. Isn’t that insane?

You can guarantee that if this restaurant didn’t have enough cash on hand to make payroll – EVER – they didn’t have other basic shit together.

Don’t work for people like that.

Whew. That was way longer than I thought it would be. If you’re still reading, I’d love to hear from you. How do you deal with the financial uncertainty of making a living as a writer?

How Changing Two Letters is Simplifying My Life

I wrote this post originally for GovLoop’s blog on November 13th

In November, I took a fiction-writing class with a local author and singer extraordinaire, Ken Scholes. As we went around the room to introduce ourselves, a common theme emerged.

Most of us thought we should be writing more words, we should be submitting more short fiction, we should be taking more classes, we should be reading more books. “My best time to write is in the morning,” said the woman to my right. “I really should get up two hours before my kids so I can use that time.”

Around the table, we all nodded. We should probably do that, too.

As often happens during classes and conferences, I was scribbling furiously. The list of tricks and tips others use in their writing life was positive and invigorating, but as the list grew so did my sense of anxiety. Where would I find time to do all of this?

After introductions, Ken noted that most of us were lamenting the things we should be doing. “What if instead of looking at what we should be doing, we say these are things we could be doing. I propose that for the rest of the class, we replace ‘should’ with ‘could.’ I’ll try to do it, too, and if you catch me, you should call me out.”

We all laughed, and he caught his mistake. “Right,” he said. “You could call me out.”

Strategies or imperatives?

At our jobs and in our personal lives, most of us are striving to do better. Most of my posts on GovLoop are intended to give people ideas – you should update your LinkedIn profile, you should network with your coworkers, you should volunteer for new projects. I eat up this kind of advice myself, consuming article after article about how to market my business better, how to eat healthier, how to be a better friend – and every time I finish reading one, I’m left feeling a bit more anxious.

But what if, instead of constantly telling ourselves that we should do something, we tell ourselves we could do it? Doing laundry tonight is, after all, a choice. So is going for a run. So is going to that networking event, or reworking your LinkedIn profile.

What if we thought of each of these things as a strategy we could choose, rather than a command that’s been issued – or a bar that we’re failing to hit?

The Empty Container

I subscribe to Zen Habits, which when I’m feeling swamped with life can be sometimes infuriating in its quiet simplicity. But last week, right when I needed it this post showed up in my inbox.

After a discussion of how our lives get so complicated, Leo Babauta says:

“Instead of thinking, ‘How can I get rid of this complicated mess?’ … let’s ask, ‘What if I started with a blank slate?’ What would you do if your life was a blank slate? If it were an empty container, with limited space, what would you put in it?”

Instead of trying to tackle this whole mess of obligations, possibilities, and “shoulds,” what if you could just empty your bucket of life out, then sort through each item, only putting it back in if it fits your criteria?

Starting small

It’s posts like that that makes me want to hurl things at Zen Habits.

Sure, it’s actually quite good advice – but who has the kind of life that they can simply rearrange? I sure don’t. I have clients, family obligations, events that have been on the calendar for months, and deadlines that are rushing toward me like toppling dominoes.

I may not be able to clear my plate all at once with a magic wand, but I can start small.

This week my challenge to myself – and to you – is to take a look at your life. Pick just one “should” that’s been stressing you out, and look at it as a “could.” Maybe it’s a conference you feel like you should attend, or a work responsibility you feel like you should take on, or a project around the house that’s been bugging you. Think of this “command” as a strategy. Is it one that will help you? Is it worth the stress it’s adding to your life? Does it belong in your empty container?

If not, toss it out to make room for something more fulfilling.

Adopting a Business Mindset About Your Writing

[Note: I lost all the comments on this post in a website transfer. Sorry, guys!]

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person.

I like to list them on paper and plan out the steps I need to take to reach them. I like to create numbers and metrics for myself. I love weekly check-ins, where I can hold myself accountable for the things I’m doing – in fact, I like it so much that I’m a part of two separate business accountability groups that meet weekly to talk about our goals (virtually).

Let me just say that I know this is kind of weird, in that way of people who geek out on spreadsheets, or use color-coded markers to write their to do lists.

I’ve always been a writer of goals, but it’s only recently that I’ve tried to also be a speaker of goals. You know, to tell other people what I plan to do, so that they can ask me how I’m doing, and hold me accountable along the way.

It’s actually quite scary, but you know what? It’s incredibly motivating.

So if you’ll indulge me this post, I’d like to make you, the people of the internet, my accountability buddies. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter if you get a wild hare, or shoot me an email to ask how things are going along the way. I’ve got a lot planned for this year, and although much of it is related to my freelance business, I’ve got some awesome fiction projects coming your way, too.

My 2015 goals

Focus my niche for freelancing

My scattershot marketing approach of 2014 netted me clients in a wide array of fields, and this is the year to build on them. It turns out the majority of my clients are B2B, so while I don’t quite feel like I’m in a place to specialize by industry, I do intend to specialize by type.

As I research projects for each current client, I keep a notebook where I list any other company in their niche that looks interesting. So while my inbound inquiries continue to be all over the board, my outbound prospecting for 2015 will build a lot on my current clients’ industries:

  • EdTech
  • Restaurant/retail
  • Hospitality
  • Apparel

To reflect that, I grouped my experience by industry on my B2B copywriting website.

Raise my rates

I started low-but-livable as a freelance copywriter, and as I’m gaining more experience I think it’s reasonable to expect to double my freelance rates by the end of the year. How? Through a combination of raising rates with current clients, screening new clients who can afford higher rates, and increasing how quickly I write.

Besides the fact that it’ll be nice to have some extra cash, my main reason for wanting to raise rates is to free up time spent on low-paying work so I can use that time to accomplish my next big goal of 2015:

Build passive income streams

I still sell a few copies of my e-book Crafting with Inner Tubes, a Bicitoro craft guide, every month – despite the fact that it’s ill-advertised, and I hardly ever blog at Bicitoro.com these days. I plan to publish another craft guide in the next few months, teaching people to create custom wool jerseys like I used to sell on Etsy.

My additional passive income stream will come from fiction, which leads to my next goal:

Publish three novels

After publishing zero novels in the first 31 years of my life, I plan to publish three in this, my 32nd year. When I first started writing, novels were intensely laborious creatures which required years of incubation, a messily meandering writing process, and dozens of rewrites-from-scratch. If you’d told me five years ago that I’d feel confident of publishing – let alone writing – three novels in a year, I’d have said you were crazy.

But yet, here I am.

Two novels are already in the pipeline to be published:

I plan to self-publish the last novel, which I’ll be ready to talk about more this summer. It’s a story that I’ve been mulling around for years, and the characters are starting to chomp at the bit for their turn on the stage.

Because I never know when to quit, I’m also setting myself a tentative goal to self-publish a few novellas set in the Bike Caper universe, since I’m having a lot of fun creating character backstory. Client work and these novels are priority, though, so we’ll see what I end up having room for.

How I’ll accomplish my goals

Goals are great, but they mean nothing without a plan to accomplish them.

I’ve written several posts for GovLoop’s blog lately on the topic, so I won’t rehash the General Theories of Goal Keeping in this post – but here they are if you want to check them out:

What I want to talk about here is how I’ll specifically take these four 2015 goals and break them down into bite-sized habits that will let me achieve them. (If you want to learn more about creating good goal-supporting habits, listen to Podcast #21 of the International Freelancers Academy, with Ed Gandia and James Clear.)

Focus my freelancing niche: Like I said, I’ve already developed the habit of jotting down similar prospects when I’m doing research for one of my current clients. That’s resulted in several hundred intriguing prospects, and it’s definitely a habit I intend to continue. I also need to get in the habit of actually prospecting them, however. I generally shift modes around lunch time, from highly-focused to puttering. My plan is to take advantage of that puttering to send a letter of introduction to just one of the prospects on that list – which means I need to set aside about an hour each week to sit down and qualify a list.

Raise my rates: I tend to be timid about asking for what I want, thinking that I’d rather just go without than inconvenience someone else. This isn’t just a problem in business – it’s created frustrations in my friendships, family, and marriage at times, too. So in 2015, I’d like to build the habit of asking for what I need on a daily basis. Getting used to asking for small things – like a back rub, someone to turn their music down, or for help finding something in the grocery store – will make it easier to ask for what I need when I’m negotiating with a client.

Build passive income, and publish three novels: I’m lumping these, since they’re essentially the same goal. I’ve been developing the habit of waking up and writing 300 words first thing before I do my daily exercise and then get into my client work. That’s been pretty successful so far, but if I’m planning to publish three novels and two novellas this year, I’ll need to add in some longer bursts of writing. If I write 300 words/day for 365 days, that’s 109,500 first-draft words – but I’m hoping to hit a count of about 250,000 published words this year. I do plan to set aside larger blocks of time throughout the week for pure fiction writing, but I also plan to increase my daily morning word count to 500.

Resources

I hope you found this post inspiring, and that you’ll check in at some point this year to keep me accountable. If you’re feeling inspired to become more business-minded about your creative projects, here are some resources you should check out:

Inspired? What are your creative goals for 2015? Leave them in the comments, and we’ll help keep you accountable, too.

What I Learned In My First Year As A Full-Time Writer

[Note: I lost all the wonderful comments on this post in a website transfer. Sorry, guys!]

I was inspired to do this post by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, who always does a year-end post on her business goals and accomplishments. Mostly this post is meant to create accountability and a place for reflection for me, but I also offer it publicly in the spirit of helping other writers out.

There’s so much writing advice out there, and so much of it is fantastic – but it doesn’t all apply to writers who are just getting out the starting gate. Or it doesn’t all apply to people who want to combine a career in freelance copywriting and fiction. I thought it would be helpful for other beginning freelance writers and novelists to see what my experience has been like.

I’m not going to throw out any specific numbers, but I do want to be as transparent as possible. Feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment if you have any questions.

How I made a living as a full-time writer

OK, so I’ll be the first to admit that this first year of freelancing wasn’t exactly a living. I haven’t entirely crunched the numbers yet, but I believe that – after taxes – I made approximately half what I did working at a desk copywriting job.

This would be disappointing to me if a) it wasn’t expected, and b) I wasn’t about to launch into 2015 with WAY more momentum than I had at the beginning of last year.

Two related things at the beginning of 2014 launched me into full-time freelancing before I felt financially ready to take the plunge: we moved to Portland from Seattle, and so I quit my safety-cushion waitress job. Without a side job I had no way to pick up the slack in my burgeoning freelance business, shifting more of our financial burden onto my husband’s job.

The plus side? This year I’ve had endless amounts of time to work on my business – and a burning drive not to be a “kept woman” really honed my focus.

What kinds of writing work paid my bills?

Here’s where my income came from in 2014 (rough numbers, since I still don’t have everything for December):

  • Ongoing web copy for Main Client: 57%
  • Business blogging: 20%
  • Product copywriting: 15%
  • Business marketing: 4%
  • Misc. projects: 3%
  • Magazine articles: 1.5%
  • Fiction: 0.1%

Yikes – most of my income comes from a single client.

What this breakdown shows me is that I’m relying on one single client for almost 60% of my income – which is a terrifying prospect, and something I’ve been keenly aware of as their business has gone through its own dips. I’ve been on a major marketing push to try diversify my income, but as I go into the new year I’ll definitely be focusing on growing other clients to mitigate the risk of my main client drying up.

Most of my client work was ongoing

The great thing this breakdown doesn’t show is that most of my income comes from sources that are ongoing, like blogging and the web copy work I do for my main client. That means that I know roughly how much I’m going to make each month as a base salary, and any extra one-off projects I can land go on top of that. This model is fantastic for peace of mind.

My fiction sales barely covered my husband’s most recent Powell’s bill

As you can see, my fiction writing is currently the least lucrative thing I do. This year has been mainly about building my freelance business, so although I’ve taken some time for my fiction I’ve kept myself pretty focused on paying the bills. Again, as I go into 2015 I hope to feel more stable in my freelance income, so I can take more time to write and publish fiction. It’s my hope that next year the Fiction column of my income breakdown will be a bit more substantial.

Where I found my clients

I just scanned down through my Freshbooks client report, and here’s the breakdown of where my clients came from:

  • I answered a job ad: 6
  • I sent a cold pitch: 4
  • Referred to me by a client: 3
  • Already a friend: 3
  • Found me on LinkedIn: 2
  • Saw my ad on Ravelry: 2

I’m also in conversation with several other clients right now:

  • Found me on LinkedIn: 2
  • Met at a networking event: 1
  • I answered a job ad: 1

You can still find some decent clients on job ads

Sure, there’s a ton of shit out there on Craigslist advertising “great exposure” for writers who want to work for pennies, but there’s some good clients lurking there as well. My two best clients came when I answered a job ad – including the one that paid 60% of my income this year. (I’ve been writing for them for nearly two years in total.)

The trick is to know where to look for job ads. Don’t spend hours scouring Craigslist. Instead, learn to quickly sift through the chaff, and don’t bother applying for something unless you’re pretty perfect for it.

Here are the jobs boards I check regularly.

LinkedIn is your friend

In the last few months I’ve gotten 2-3 decent leads a month from potential clients that found my LinkedIn profile. They’ve all been local to Portland, and have been split 50/50 between recruiters from staffing agencies and solo business owners.

I’ve spiffed up my profile quite a bit over the last year, adding in visuals to my profile and tons of keywords in my job titles and descriptions. An anecdote to prove that’s helping: prior to about 3 months ago I didn’t have much B2B copywriting experience, but I wanted to break into that niche. I changed my description to say I work with B2B retail companies, and now nearly every inquiry has been from a B2B company.

Here are some tips on how to up your LinkedIn profile from a blog post I wrote for GovLoop.

Other writers should also be your friends

Something these numbers don’t show is that three of the job ads I successfully applied for were sent my way by other writers. One came through a writer I met in the Freelance Writer’s Den, one I met through Be A Freelance Blogger’s forum, and one I know through the Portland cycling community.

I’ve referred work to other writers twice this year – once when I left a client who couldn’t afford me after I raised my rates, and once when I had a client ask me about a type of work I wasn’t interested in doing.

My point? Other writers aren’t your competition. There’s a TON of work out there, and it literally pays to get to know others in your industry.

But you still need to put in the elbow grease

The second larges sources of new gigs for me was cold pitching potential prospects. At the end of 12 full months of freelancing I’m to a point where people are coming to me, but I’m still sending out letters of introduction and phoning up prospects – because that’s how I’m going to keep moving up.

My advice to writers who want to make a living:

The wheels turn slowly. I’ve found that it can take up to six months from a client’s initial contact with me to the point that I do a project for them. If you’re wanting to break into freelance writing, make sure you have a safety net – ideally income saved up to cover your first six months of expenses, or a part-time job to pick up the slack. Or, a fabulous partner who believes in you, if you get caught in a spot like I was.

People hear about you in random ways. Marketing is like sowing seeds – but not like putting a seed in the garden, marking the spot, and watching it grow. No. Marketing is like scattering a bunch of seeds in your garden, only to have them eaten by birds who fly throughout the neighborhood and shit them out in other people’s yards. What I’m saying is that you have to keep sowing those seeds, and don’t be surprised at the random places you’ll find them growing.

Just start. Don’t worry about getting your website perfect, don’t worry that your LinkedIn profile is barren, don’t worry that you sound like a moron on the phone (I still do), don’t spend a whole week polishing a cover letter. JUST START. It’s way better to bumble through things as you go than to never start because you’re procrastinating yourself with perfection.