Oh, all while pretending to be on vacation in Arizona, where I’ve been working in the mornings and spending time with family and “relaxing” in the afternoons.
I’m cheerfully telling people how excited I am for the new year, how I’m going to put creativity first in 2022 — and yet.
I’m torn in a half-dozen directions, as usual, with no finish line in sight.
I’m lucky. Most of this chaos is of my own making: client work I’ve said yes to, books I’m excited to write, projects I initiated. I have what Charlie Gilkey calls “Shiny Object Syndrome,” gleefully jumping at new opportunities and filling my plate to bursting without stopping to think how I’ll manage it all.
That said, I can feel myself circling burnout, and I know I need to start working smarter.
I need to take real time off. To close the computer after dinner. To go on walks with my neighbor in the afternoon without stressing that I need to rush back to my desk.
I have no idea how to do that. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.
What’s coming in 2022
All that said, let’s take a look at what I’ve got in the works for you in 2022!
I know! I’ve been talking about these books for ages, and you’ve yet to see more than my short story in CROOKED V.1. 😉
My original goal had been to launch the first Nanshe Chronicles book, Ghost Pirate Gambit, in March. But a few weeks back I learned that the official launch date of my new nonfiction book (see below) will be March 8.
So in order to not divide my metal capacity and marketing-shouting goodwill, I’m pushing back the launch of the Nanshe Chronicles to May. I’ll be putting out all three of the first books one after another in May, June, and July.
I’ll be working with J.S. Arquin (who narrated the Bulari Saga audiobooks) to produce the first three Nanshe Chronicles books — so if you’re an audio listener, you’re in luck! Those will be coming out at the same time as the print and ebooks.
There will indeed be a CROOKED V.2, as I continue on my quest to make sci-fi crime a Thing. I’ll be putting up a call for submissions in January-ish — if you know of anyone who I should ask to contribute, let me know.
I’m also currently working on a couple of stories for sci-fi crime anthologies other people are editing — one about noir detectives, one about the future of crime.
(I’m revisiting the Bulari Saga for the noir one, giving Detective Timo Cho a chance to do what he does best — ask too many questions.)
(Is this the root of my overwhelm problem?)
I’ve got a book with Starla, Mona, and Luc kicking around in my brain. It would take place after the final Bulari Saga book, but act as an entry point into a new series following those crazy kids on their own series of adventures. (If you read the Epilogue you probably guessed I was laying seeds for this)
I also have a fantasy series I’ve been working on off and on for years. It’s been sitting in the metaphorical trunk for years, partly because I was working on other things, partly because it was missing… something.
But a few weeks back I realized what it was missing was a large dash of Killing Eve, and now I’m on fire to write it. Not to mention I’m coming back from a trip to Arizona, which is the landscape that I modeled this fantasy world off of.
As I mentioned above, From Big Idea to Book, my latest nonfiction book, will be out in March. It’s published through Microcosm Publishing, and I’m super excited for it.
Seven years ago this week, I was snowed in, stir crazy, and fighting off the certainty that I’d just made a huge mistake.
And now — sans snow — I’m struggling with that fear again.
(But more on the changes afoot here in a minute.)
That snowy January seven years ago, my husband and I had just moved to Portland, OR. I’d worked my last shift at the Elysian Brewing Company, said goodbye to all our friends, and hung my shingle as a full time freelance copywriter.
I was terrified.
One year earlier, I’d worked my way out of my full time catalog copywriting gig by freelancing on the side until I was too busy to do both.
I’d gone down to part time at the catalog company, then picked up shifts at the Elysian and a local Mexican restaurant (the excellent Fonda La Catrina in Georgetown) to bolster my shaky freelance income.
Working three jobs on top of being a freelance writer was exhausting — and, more critically, it was hindering my ability to grow my freelance business.
But letting go of that steady income?
I couldn’t do it.
Not on my own, at least — not until my husband got a job in Portland, and I had to cut my safety net loose and trust my writing business to support me.
I remember checking my dwindling business bank account, wondering if I’d made a mistake.
“If this doesn’t work, you can always go back to waiting tables,” I’d said to myself.
And I got to work cold-calling potential clients.
A new transition point for this freelance writer
“You can always go back to waiting tables” was my mantra for years.
Every time I lost a client, every time a dream gig fell through, every time I found myself checking a near-empty bank account.
And in seven years, I never did.
My hustle in those early years paid off. As I slowly gathered portfolio clips and confidence, I grew from charging $50 for a blog post to charging $500. I gathered a stable of reliable, well-paying clients I loved to work with. I said no to projects that weren’t a good fit for my goals, or a good use of my time.
In the back of my mind, I’d always known that as long as I kept relying on my waitress shifts for cash, I wouldn’t take the risks and pour enough energy into the freelancing.
Now I’m in a similar period of transition with my fiction business.
A focus on fiction
I’ve been diligently working to write and publish books while still keeping up with the freelance writer hustle, terrified that if I pull the plug on that regular income, my fiction income won’t sustain me.
It can’t — not now, anyway.
But what if I gave it the same full-time energy that nurtured my freelance writer career in those early years?
What if I trusted myself to work the fiction hustle as well as I worked the freelance one?
After all. I can always go back to copywriting.
Learning to say no
Of course, there’s a key difference between quitting waiting tables and quitting copywriting: I like copywriting. I find most of the work I do incredibly fulfilling, and love my clients.
Waiting tables, on the other hand? For all that I loved my coworkers, that job gave me stress nightmares almost every night.
In 2020, I started learning to say no to the work that no longer fit my goals, and opening space both for writing fiction, and for more of the work I do want to take on.
Going into 2021, I’ve set myself clear guidelines around the type of work I can say yes to as a freelance writer — and those guidelines are incredibly narrowly defined.
It’s terrifying to say no to money when you don’t have a big project on the horizon.
It’s terrifying to invest weeks and months into writing books on spec, rather than putting those hours under contract to a paying client.
But after seven years of watching my income ebb and flow, after watching myself build a business out of scratch, to succeed past every setback, I know I can do it again.
What I learned in my seventh year as a freelance writer
All that to say, welcome to my seventh annual reflection post. Changes are obviously afoot in Kwakland, and I’d like to talk a bit about how I got through 2020, what I learned along the way, and what I’m taking into 2021.
As always, my goal is to be transparent about my business and my struggles to help out freelancer writers who are earlier on their journeys than I am.
(And if that’s you, I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line: jessie at jessiekwak.com).
This past year turned me (and many others) from a homebody into hermit. I forgot to leave the house for days. Honestly, I barely left my office.
It was a year of extremes. Some times I was so busy with freelance work I could barely breath. Other times it was crickets, and I used the lull to work on fiction. Some days I was laser focused on my work and goals — other days I could barely manage to find the energy to scroll Twitter and try not to scream.
I was used to working from home as a freelance writer, but I wasn’t used to my husband being constantly at home with me, and our forced co-captivity surfaced some issues we needed to work through. (As well as making our relationship even stronger.)
We all have our 2020 story, and I’m grateful to be in a place where I could weather last year’s storm relatively painlessly.
But, wow. I’m looking forward to the coming vaccine.
As for how COVID-19 impacted my freelance business, it’s hard to say. At the beginning of the pandemic, I took on a couple of COVID-related projects, such as an ebook about pivoting your business during the pandemic for Microsoft.
But as the uncertainty stretched out, marketing budgets froze and projects for Jessie dried up. I still had a few regular clients, but new work just didn’t seem to be coming in.
I used the time to finish the last book in the Bulari Saga and begin planning my next series, the Nanshe Chronicles — but as I watched my bank account drain, I started to worry.
Fortunately, I landed a few big projects at the end of the year that brought my income back up to par with what it had been in 2019. But October and November were probably two of the busiest months of my career, and I was perilously close to burnout by the time December rolled around.
But that’s a freelancer’s life, right?
Income analysis: How I made my living as a freelance writer in 2020
I had some shifts this year, but overall the makeup of my freelance income stayed on par with 2019. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, it’s a bit hard to break down by project since I sometimes do different types of writing for the same client.
The big change is that I had fewer clients overall. Whereas I did work for 16 separate clients in 2019, last year I only billed 10 clients — and two of those were for single projects that took less than a few days to complete.
I spent 2020 slowly shedding clients in an attempt to free up more time to focus on writing fiction. Going into 2021 I have only one monthly blogging client, and an ongoing relationship with one main client that feeds me regular content marketing work.
I’m still open to new work — particularly ghostwriting — but I’m in a position where I can be very choosy about who I work with and how it fits with my goals.
Here’s my income breakdown for 2020:
Content marketing (ebooks and such): 60%
Business blogging – 18%
Ghostwriting – 8.5%
Copywriting (website copy) – 8%
Fiction – 5%
Knitting product copy – 0.5%
Content marketing and ghostwriting are my favorite types of work, so I’m glad to see them making up a good chunk of my income for 2020. I’m also excited that my fiction income held strong at 5% — especially since I had planned to do several big in-person book events that got canceled.
Growing a fiction writing business
I mentioned that I’m paring down my client list to free up time to write fiction. The hope being that by pouring energy into writing and marketing that side of my business this coming year, that income will grow to a level that actually is sustainable.
Currently, my plan for that is to launch a new series (probably in fall of 2021), and re-launch the Bulari Saga with new covers (sometime next month).
My goal is to get these books in front of new fans, but also to double down on my core fans. To that end, I’ve started a Patreon, where I’m documenting my journey of writing the new series (the Nanshe Chronicles), sharing behind-the-scenes information, and posting sneak previews.
I also had a chance to go on the No Shelf Control podcast and talk about the Bulari Saga with authors Lindsey Fairleigh and Lindsey Pogue. It was an incredible amount of fun! (Listen to the interview here.)
A year of Chaos and Creativity
As well as fiction, I’ve been growing the nonfiction book side of my business. From Chaos to Creativity came out at the end of 2019, and I spent part of the summer of 2020 writing a followup book about the writing process.
While I couldn’t travel to do events like I did in 2019, I did have a few fun virtual opportunities come up to talk with people about creativity.
The first one was in May (remember May?) when I got a chance to chat with Lydia Rogue from Microcosm Publishing about pandemic productivity, and how to be gentle with yourself. (You can watch it here.)
The second amazing opportunity was with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn podcast. (Listen here.) I’ve been a longtime fan of Joanna’s podcast, so it was a complete thrill to get to come on the show!
Finally, I was invited to give a presentation on productivity for writers at the virtual Willamette Writer’s Conference in August. There’s no recording of the event, but it was an incredible honor to get a chance to speak with everyone there — and the organizers even managed to build in some networking time where I made some new friends. (Difficult to do over Zoom!)
What’s coming up in 2021?
2020 gave us all a bit of whiplash. And I don’t think I’m alone in my newfound reluctance to make big plans at the moment.
But my main goal is to double down on fiction, refining my process and focusing my time in order to grow this part of my business like it deserves. If you want to stay up to date on that, join my newsletter.
Enough about me now. I’d love to know — what are your plans for 2021? How did your 2020 go?
Leave me a note in the comments.
And here’s to a fresh start and an amazing new year!
(Welcome to my annual post about what I learned as a freelance writer this year!)
Six years! Six years of working full time as a freelance writer, folks. I can barely believe it — it doesn’t seem like that long ago I was trying to figure out how to even find a client.
Lately when I’m feeling frustrated with life, my husband likes to remind me that I literally made my own job, and have been doing it successfully for longer than I’ve worked anywhere else.
And I’m like, right. That is pretty badass.
I’m saying that not to brag. Because the reason I write these yearly wrap-up posts (you can read about Year 5 (2018), Year 4 (2017), Year 3 (2016), Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014)) are because I hope to inspire writers who are a step or two behind me. And if that’s you, I want you to know that it’s entirely possible to build a freelance writing career from scratch — and have it be sustainable.
One thing about freelancing is that it can feel like you’re stuck on a treadmill — always running, but never actually making progress. That’s one reason I love these yearly check-ins! They’re an opportunity for me to take a deep breath and remind myself just how far I’ve actually come.
So without further ado, here are my lessons and successes from my 6th year as a freelance writer.
2019: A year of books!
In last year’s post, I mentioned that 2018 had been a year of writing books and stocking them up for release. The result? This year I put out six books:
And because I got the rights back, I re-released my first novel, Shifting Borders, as From Earth and Bone
It was a wild ride! Along with learning the ins and outs of marketing all these books and going on a mini book tours to support From Chaos to Creativity, I also kept writing. I turned in the fourth Bulari Saga book (Heat Death) last week, and am already hard at work on the fifth and last Bulari Saga book (Kill Shot).
The more I write, the faster I get. Plus, my husband and I have been developing a system where he beta reads the books and offers me feedback as I go, which has been crucial in helping me spot big problems early on. Even as the later Bulari Saga books have gotten more complicated, working more closely with him as a beta reader has reduced my writing time.
One of the biggest things I learned is that writing the next book is the best marketing you can do. I’m looking forward to finishing the Bulari Saga so I can do more with marketing it as a complete series.
2019: A year of making my business work for me
I had a few really low points in the last year.
I quit my desk job to freelance 7 years ago because I wanted more freedom, but owning your own business can sometimes feel like a trap. I wasn’t traveling like I’d wanted to do. I was working weekends and evenings. I was scrambling to balance freelance work with fiction, and didn’t have time for any of the hobbies that used to bring me joy — like sewing or drawing.
I hit a wall this summer, and so for the latter part of the year I really worked on reining that in. I said no to more things, and let myself off the hook when it came to keeping up with personal projects. I kept reminding myself to take small steps and enjoy life, rather than barreling through it.
After all, what’s the point in owning your own business if it’s just going to stifle you? Wouldn’t you be better off working for someone else?
Practically, I gave myself permission to take time off. I stopped scheduling my days so rigidly, and started letting myself work on the things that sparked my interest.
The result was that I would get way more done, because I was doing what I felt like working on in the moment, rather than forcing myself to do something I wasn’t inspired to do yet.
Obviously, I still have to meet deadlines — so part of finding joy in my work again was saying no to work that doesn’t spark my interest. I dropped a couple of clients that had become sources of stress for me due either to the type of work I was doing, or the pay rate being too low, and doubled down on work I enjoy.
I also gave myself permission not to worry so much about money. After 6 years of freelancing full time, I know that work comes in cycles. For example, in two months, I billed nearly a third of my total income for last year — which meant when things slowed down afterward, I felt comfortable taking that time to work on my fiction instead of doing my usual “freak out about never having work again” dance.
That required trust, and at times it was terrifying. But the freelance cycle is the freelance cycle, and over the years I’ve built systems to help me weather the ebb and flow through savings and recurring income.
This patience and kindness towards myself is an energy I really want to take with me into the next year. Instead of burning myself out for my business, I want to shape my business into something that works for me.
Basically, I’m going to be a better boss to myself.
Because if I’m going to hate my boss, I might as well work for someone else, right?
Client analysis: How I make my living as a freelance writer
Every year, I sit down with my sales reports and figure out where my income came from, and use that to shape a path for the next year.
This year, I saw some really cool shifts.
Content marketing/ghostwriting: 54%
Business blogging: 24%
SEO/website copy: 16%
Book sales/royalties: 4.5%
Knitting product copy: 0.5%
Every year I end up breaking things down different ways, sorry, but this year I found that 54% of my income came from my favorite type of work: story-based content marketing and ghostwriting.
That means reported articles, ebooks, case studies, ghostwritten blog posts, etc. (All of the ghostwriting I did in 2019 was blogging.)
It’s hard to get really granular, since I have several clients where I do multiple types of projects — but since I like them all, I grouped them into the top category.
The second category, business blogging, made up about a quarter of my income. This includes white labeled posts that rely less on interviews/storytelling, and are instead more straightforward content.
Website copy went down to 16% from 25% last year, which is great because it’s really not my favorite work. All of this year’s website writing income came from one client who’s been great to me over the years, but the work isn’t super engaging. I parted ways with them about halfway through the year in order to focus on another client who was giving me much more interesting work.
But my most exciting stat? Book income.
Last year, my book writing income was 1% of my total. This year, it’s 4.5%. Having more books in the market definitely helped that, as did having a traditionally published book come out, so I could count on the publisher’s reach and distribution to help get in front of more readers.
And knitting product copy is kind of ridiculous to put as its separate thing, but I just find it such an amusing data point — people will pay you to write all sort of things if you just look for it!
What’s ahead for 2020?
Fiction-wise, I plan to release the last two Bulari Saga books. Heat Death is already scheduled to come out March 24th (you can pre-order it here), and I’m hoping for a summer release for Kill Shot.
I’m not quite ready to talk about the next series I’m working on, but suffice it to say I’m REALLY excited about it!
As for my freelancing business, I’m going to lean more into ghostwriting, and ultimately stop saying yes to any projects that don’t bring me joy. That will free up space for the really fun work I want to do, as well as writing books in the downtime.
Five years ago, I would have loved to say no to boring projects — but I needed to pay the rent and I’d take what I could get.
This year, I’ve built a business that attracts amazing clients, and I get more inquiries than I can possibly say yes to. Being able to say no to boring work is a privilege, but it’s also the result of 6 years of hustling.
So here’s to an amazing 2020!
It’s going to be the year my business becomes a source of joy and energy rather than a hustle and a drain.
Because I definitely can’t afford to burn out — I’m way too unemployable at this point. 🙂
What are your 2019 takeaways and 2020 goals? Le’ve ’em in the comments.
(This post about dreaming big is part of my weekly Monday Morning Blast-Off email series. To get emails like this in your inbox every Monday morning, head here.)
Every week, I send out the Monday Morning Blast Off email to a really cool group of folks who want to boost their creative productivity.
Last week I asked people to tell me what some of their shoot-for-the-moon dreams were, and I got some really lovely responses — everything from having a quiet writing retreat to being a radical agent of change in the last years before retirement.
My point was that if we truly believe in those crazy big goals, we will set our daily goals to reflect that.
But I realized that dreaming big isn’t just about big picture goals.
We need to dream big about the small things, too.
And I’m terrible at it.
Dreaming big about zombies
I have a tendency to half-ass marketing my books. I figure if people find the book and like it, that’s great. But, like, I don’t want to annoy people by shouting about it!
I’m telling myself it’s because I want to focus on writing the next thing — but the real reason is because I’m afraid of watching a project bomb.
I don’t actually believe it could be a success, so I lie and tell myself I don’t care if it’s successful. And so I don’t put in the effort to make it happen.
And so it bombs. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m working on a sort of weird short story collection about zombies and corporate communication that I want to release this summer, and I’ve falling into that trap. Thinking it’s just, you know, this little book. Maybe somebody will like it. Maybe not. But whatever, I’ll just toss it up on Amazon and see.
But this week I realized that it could actually have a lot of potential to get picked up by niche media outlets, and promoted by big industry names. And if I truly believe in it, I need to double down on marketing to give it the best shot of going viral.
I can either shrug and “leave it to fate,” or I can work up the guts to email big-name people for blurbs, pitch it to major sites, pay for advertising, and ask for help from people with bigger audiences than me.
And, dammit, that’s what I’m going to do.
Because how can I expect myself to achieve big dreams if I’m scared to set big goals for small dreams?
Do you have any passion projects that — let’s face it — you’re letting die because of lack of faith in yourself?
Ask yourself why. Is it because you’re afraid of putting 110% in and still failing to make a mark, like I am? Are you worried what others might think about it? Do you think it’s just not that important?
Now ask yourself what steps you’d have to take to ensure that project has a chance to shine.
You’re putting in the work. Don’t be afraid to push it across the finish line with all your strength.
You’ve got this.
Now tell me: what one thing are you going to do this week to help your project reach its full potential?
I’ve struggled with analysis paralysis for years. Should I be cold calling new clients, or working on my novel? Should I be blogging, or working on my book launch? Should I be pitching guest posts to sites my clients read, or pitching my novel to review bloggers?
It was excruciating! No matter what I was doing, I felt like I should be doing something else. Plus, at any given point I had a half-dozen creative projects I was halfway working on. I was totally overwhelmed.
But over the past few months, I’ve discovered an easy(er) way to help me choose what needs to happen in any given day.
It’s all about identifying the One Thing you can do to achieve your overall goals. The One Thing to Rule Them All.
You might hear this referred to as the Most Important Task, or Most Important Thing (MIT).
I discovered that because my business essentially is content-driven, my One Thing is creating content: if I’m not writing novels, blog posts, and books that contribute to my body of work, I’m on the wrong track.
On any given day, my priorities suddenly become crystal clear.
Sounds simple, right? But it’s amazing how many people (myself included) operate without their One Thing clearly defined.
Why one thing?
I can already hear you saying wait up, Jessie, I have way more than one thing that’s most important to my business. Can’t I pick a half-dozen priorities?
(The voice in my head is saying the exact same thing.)
In response, I invite you to think about that sentence for a minute. The word prioritydidn’t even have a plural form until sometime in the 1900s — it simply meant “the thing that came before other things.”
By default, you could only have one priority!
Of course, word meanings and dictionary definitions change over time. But even though the English language now allows us to have priorities, forcing yourself into restrictive thinking helps you come up with stronger solutions.
In a recent podcast, Ed Gandia talks about this principle. In his list of questions to ask himself during his yearly review, he includes “What would I spend my time on if I was forced to spend only two hours a week on my business?”
Clearly, you can’t get much done in two hours a week. But if that’s all you had, you’d be forced to choose the most impactful tasks, rather than noodling away your time on non-critical things.
That’s why I’m asking you to get seriously brutal with your priorities and pick the One Single Thing that will make the biggest impact this year.
It can shift over time — it might not always be to create new work. It might be to hone your skills. Write that business book. Get a degree. Build your network. Land awesome assignments. Start a nonprofit. Pivot yourself to a new market. Develop a new course. Solve a pressing societal problem.
Whatever it is, let it be your number one priority. Let it guide you when you choose what tasks to prioritize today, and what obligations to say yes to tomorrow.
Have you always been guided by your One Thing? Or are you still warming to the concept? Let me know in the comments.
Ready to tame the chaos in your life so you can get your best creative work done? Sign up for the Monday Morning Blast-Off. Each week I’ll send you one quick, actionable tip to help you start the week off right.
Welcome to my annual review post, where I’m taking a look back at 2016 to see how I make a living writing. Read about Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).
It’s hard to believe I just finished up my third full year as a freelance writer. Every year has been a little different — and every year has gotten me that much closer to where I want to be in my business and life.
I like doing these end of year posts — in part because they help tie a nice, tidy ribbon around the year, and in part because they help me see how much I’ve grown.
I’ve spotted a theme in each of my last few years of freelancing:
My first year was about growth — saying yes to everything and growing as fast as I can.
My second year was about refining my niche and focusing my efforts.
My third year has been about finding balance between my freelance business and my life.
Balance? Yeah, balance.
I just reviewed my 2016 goals post in my freelance accountability group, and one year ago I was thinking a lot about work-life balance.
I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with client work and unhappy with the amount of fiction I’d produced. (It didn’t help that my husband had just started a new job and working long hours himself.)
One year ago I needed to find a better balance — not just for me, but for both of us.
I’m happy to say that while I’m not 100 percent to where I want us to be, we’ve made huge gains. After two full years of working almost every weekend, I now take weekends off. I never work on client work in the evenings anymore, and mostly don’t write fiction in the evenings, either.
Two main focuses helped me get here: better-paying clients and smarter time management.
Finding better paying clients
The first part of the equation was to clean up my client list, attract better-paying clients, and switch to projects where I can better manage my time and energy.
For example, in 2015, 25% of my income mostly came from blogging. At the peak, I had blog post deadlines at least once per day — and sometimes as many as two or three per day. No surprise I had a hard time arranging my schedule to accommodate more time for writing fiction.
Now, the majority of my income comes from larger projects like e-books, white papers, and website content. These pay better, and have deadlines that allow me to organize my work week more efficiently.
(I’m not trying to imply that blogging is entry-level and new freelancers should aspire to move past it. It’s just that for me, the constant deadlines interfered with my need to have more solid blocks of time for deep fiction work.)
Smarter time management
Over the last year, I’ve become much better at organizing my time and avoiding distractions.
I’ve increased my focus and willpower.
I’ve used tools like Stay Focused and Freedom to shut off distractions.
I’ve wasted a lot of time in the past by letting anger, frustration, and despair at the news hijack my energy first thing in the day. Or by letting random emails hijack my day’s priorities. So in 2016 I started a practice of avoiding social media, news, and email in the mornings.
I now try to start my day with meditation, exercise, and 30 minutes of fiction writing.
I stopped listening to NPR while I make breakfast, and started listening to podcasts instead.
I’ve found my willpower isn’t strong enough to keep me off email and Facebook, so I installed Freedom and set up a recurring block session from 6-9am every morning.
I’ve spent so much time over the last year trying to tweak my creativity and productivity that I’m starting a new weekly newsletter to share my insights: the Monday Morning Blast-Off.
If your productivity needs a kick in the pants every Monday morning, sign up here.
I do a client analysis at the end of every year to help me figure out who and what I’m spending time on so I can tweak that in the year to come. I won’t be throwing out specific numbers or names, but I’ll be as transparent as possible about how I’m making money.
Again, my goal in writing these “Year-in-review” posts is to give newer freelancers who want to make a living writing a practical look at the way someone a couple steps ahead is earning an income.
If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email!
How I make a living writing
When I left my desk job three years ago, I crossed my fingers and hoped I’d be able to replace my copywriter’s salary.
This year, I got close to doubling it.
Here’s where my income came from in 2016:
Website copy (through an agency): 35%
Content marketing (ebooks, whitepapers): 24%
Ghost writing*: 20%
Blogging for businesses: 14%
Print book**: 2%
Guest blogging: 1%
Knitting pattern descriptions: 1%
One-off projects (website content): 0.5%
* Primarily ghost blogging.
** This wasn’t one of my novels — I was contacted by a travel company to write copy for a picture book on Portland.
What this tells me:
Fiction is growing in revenue, though not in percentage. Last year, I also made 0.5% of my income from writing fiction — but this year I’m making more overall. I wasn’t as productive in this area as I wanted to be, but next year I hope to see a substantial change in the percentage.
Website content is still my biggest earner — but it’s not my favorite. What the numbers don’t show is that most of my website content work happened earlier in the year. Since about October, I’ve transitioned into doing more long form content marketing, like whitepapers and ebooks. I expect those sorts of projects to make up the bulk of my income next year as I transition away from projects I don’t enjoy as much.
Ghostwriting made up a significant portion of my income. I was surprised to see just how much I earned ghostwriting last year. It was mainly in the form of ghost blogging — partly for one regular client, and partly through a couple of different jobs that were primarily marketing. Next year I’d like to grow that percentage — hopefully by adding on ghostwriting business books as well as blog posts.
Blogging still pays the bills. Blogging made up 25% of my income in 2015, compared to 14% this year. Although I’m still doing it I’ve restructured my approach. Rather than having hectic weekly deadlines for multiple clients, I now sell a package of posts that I deliver in one go. That allows me to manage my projects better. (I also now say no to anything that I don’t personally find interesting — I find I burn out pretty quickly otherwise.)
How I found writing clients in 2016
I was going to break down my marketing efforts for this year — but then I realized I’ve literally done no intentional marketing. Every client I gained in 2016 was referred to me, found me on LinkedIn, or saw a bylined article I’d written.
That said, niching down has helped my inbound marketing efforts immensely: Nearly all of my clients are B2B SaaS companies.
I was surprised to find last year that B2B SaaS (software-as-a-service) clients made up a big chunk of my revenue. This year I doubled down on that niche, which I find both fascinating and enjoyable. (And profitable!)
I’m really happy with my current clients — they’re all in industries I find interesting, and doing work that is making some sort of difference in the world. That’s something I want to focus on in the future. Not to say I want to only work for non-profits — just that I’m no longer interested in taking on a client just for the paycheck. I want to know they’re doing good work.
Fiction income — Will it be worth the effort in 2017?
My income from fiction — book sales, short stories, and royalties — made up only a tiny fraction of my total income.
Yet, when I think about how I want to spend my days and how I want to earn a living, I would rather it comes from residual sales of book — passive income — rather than from services. A book is an evergreen source of revenue, whereas a client may disappear or decide to go a different direction.
In an ideal world, my revenue percentages from website content (35%) and fiction (0.5%) would be swapped. If I want to make a living writing fiction, how do I make that happen?
First of all, I need more assets. I can’t expect to replace a big client with a single novella. That means if I want to achieve this goal, I really need to up my game when it comes to how much fiction I’m writing.
I went through several dry spells in 2016, where I let my productivity be held captive to motivation, rather than focusing on building a strong writing habit.
In 2017, I plan to focus on daily and weekly habits, rather than setting myself lofty word count goals with no support structure.
Over the last couple months I’ve built a habit of writing 30 minutes every day, something which has hugely impacted the amount of fiction I’ve been able to write — even when I’m busy with client work. I’ll definitely keep that habit up in 2017.
How was your 2016?
I’d love to hear how things are going with you, in business, creatively, and in life. Leave me a comment or drop me a line!
This isn’t usual for me — even when I’m on a pretty good writing streak. This especially isn’t usual for me lately — after all, I’ve been in a 2-month-long fiction slump.
(Need proof? I wrote 2,650 fiction words in the entire month of October.)
Part of that has been busyness (I had my biggest freelancing month ever in November). Part of that was burnout (I finished up a massive revision of a fantasy novel in September). Part of that was the stress of the current political climate (ugh).
But a lot of it was just a lack of momentum on any particular project.
Nineteen days ago, I knew something had to give. I had just come back from the annual retreat with my business mastermind group, the Trifecta, and while the other two members of the group clearly sympathized with my feelings of ennui when it came to my writing, they had no time for complaining without action. Write or don’t write, they said (super nicely), but stop complaining about not meeting your writing goals if you’re not going to do something about it.
To quota, or not to quota
I’ve used word count quotas to try to get in the daily writing habit on multiple occasions, but something never clicked for me. No matter how small the quota, I would still have a hard time fitting it in with client work. If I tried to do it before, I would be too anxious about upcoming deadlines to really focus. If I tried to do it after, I would be too brain-dead.
Plus, if I ended up between projects or in the editing or planning stage, I wasn’t sure how to track my progress. David D. Levine once told me he counts every word deleted during the editing phase as progress toward his daily word count quota, which is great, but somehow also didn’t click for me. For some reason, the logistical problem of how to count the words, combined with never knowing how long writing 500 or 1000 words would take out of my day made it difficult for me to stick with a word count quota.
Nineteen days ago, I decided to try something a little different. Instead of a word count quota, I just told myself I had to work on fiction for 30 minutes.
That was it. Just 30 minutes. I could write character bios, scene sketches, snippets of dialogue — whatever. I could edit something I’d already written. I could just stare out of the window for 30 minutes thinking about the plot.
The point was that I spent 30 minutes every morning working on a piece of fiction.
For some reason, that was ridiculously easy. Even during the height of last month’s client work crush, I could find 30 minutes in the morning to play around with a project. Because I knew it was only 30 minutes, it was easy for me to compartmentalize the stress about client deadlines. I just turned on Freedom and got to work.
Baby steps add up toward writing goals
The first few days were nothing to write home about. Because I was starting work on a brand-new novel*, I wasn’t sure who my characters were or where anything was going. The first few days I logged two to three hundred words of exploratory setting descriptions — but, hey, that was two to three hundred words more than I had written any other day for weeks.
At first, the work was mechanical. The muse was far from the room — I was just putting fingers to keyboard and making them plod away.
But after a week, I started to get into the story. I started thinking about it outside of that 30 minutes. I started writing down snippets of dialogue on my lunch break or before bed.
Soon, I was even scheduling in a second timed writing session later in the day — 15 minutes here, another 30 minutes there.
I was gaining momentum. And all of those little snippets of writing sessions have added up: 19 days ago I wasn’t working on anything; today I’m 12,000 words into a brand-new novel.
For so long, I’ve put off writing unless I can have a large chunk of time to work on a project. I had no faith that I could accomplish so much in so little time.
Man, was I wrong.
How much progress could you make toward your writing goals in 30 minutes?
*Sorry mom. I’ll actually finish one of my many works-in-progress for you to read soon.
Well, I promised that I would report back after this weekend’s personal retreat to let you know how it went.
The short answer? Not as planned.
After one day, my retreat was cut short due to an emergency. It’s all perfectly fine now — don’t worry — but I didn’t have the uninterrupted days of relaxation, planning, and work that I’d hoped for.
That’s disappointing, of course, but it’s also life. It doesn’t matter how much you plan — in the end you still have to roll with the punches.
I’ll admit, I started writing this post with a bad attitude. Why bother? I thought. It’s not like I got anything done. And probably no one will notice if I don’t deliver the promised reflection post.
But as I started writing, it became clear that I’d actually accomplished quite a bit — and learned some good lessons.
What happened in the woods….
My intention for the personal retreat was — besides relaxation — to knock out several big personal projects that I had been putting off because of busyness and client work.
Despite my abbreviated time, I got some periods of deep work in.
I outlined the draft of a lead magnet e-book I plan to write as part of my new marketing push to attract more ghostwriting clients.
I drafted a book proposal for nonfiction book I’ve been toying with for some time, and sent it off.
I started drafting a short story for an anthology submission.
Oh — and I also sewed some adorable gifts for my niece and nephew.
I also got some nature time in. I went on a gorgeous hike to see the second tallest waterfall in Oregon (Salt Creek Falls), and nearby Diamond Creek Falls (the top photo).
As I’m typing this, I’m actually pretty proud of myself. I had been pretty disappointed in the brevity of my retreat, but in retrospect I actually did get a lot done. Plus, just the amount of planning I did in the lead up gave me a ton of clarity.
What didn’t happen in the woods
I’m disappointed I didn’t get to outline the next novella in my Durga System series. (The same series as STARFALL.) I find that actual writing is easy to weave into my normal day-to-day routine, whereas outlining and other preliminary work is easier to do in a large chunk with fewer distractions.
I was hoping to return to regular life with a solid plan so I could dive into the writing — but I suppose I’ll just have to set aside time during my regular work week to get it done. It’s strange being in between writing projects, and I’m itching to get started on something new!
My mind on nature vs. my mind on social media
The other thing I don’t feel like I got done was resetting my mind. I’ve had a lot of different projects on a lot of different burners, and I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed for the past few months.
I’d hoped this retreat would clear my mind not only by knocking out some of these side projects (which I did), but also that it would help me get back in the practice distraction-free work. I also hoped that I’d get to spend a lot of solo time in nature to help re-center myself. That didn’t exactly happen.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve been letting the stress and frenzy of the weekend color the quiet work that I should be doing. I’ve been letting myself get distracted with election coverage (*sigh*), or flipping over to social media when I should be working.
That way madness lies.
And also information overload.
Pulling the personal retreat off the pedestal
A while back, I read a post by Leo Babauta on Zen Habits about how unhappiness is a result of us clinging to our expectations instead of experiencing reality, and I think this past weekend was a perfect illustration of that.
I would have been thrilled with the amount of work and naturing I got done if I wasn’t still clinging to the unicorns-and-utopias dream of what I wanted my retreat to have been. I would have continued to enjoy my days even in the chaos of the emergency if I hadn’t constantly been thinking, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go!”
I’ve let myself slip into distraction in part because I didn’t have the blissful experience I was expecting over the weekend, but it’s time for me to stop using that as an excuse, and just get back into my practice of quiet focus in work.
There’s no reason I can’t schedule myself better and outline this novella.
There’s no reason I can’t continue to build thoughtful planning into my regular schedule.
There’s no reason I can’t take a sabbatical from news coverage in my daily life.
And there’s really no reason I can’t just take off on a Tuesday morning and go on a hike. I live in Portland, for goodness sake — it’s criminal that I don’t take more advantage of nature!
It would have been nice to have a perfect weekend, but es la vida.
Now, if you need me, I’ll be off making the most of today.
I mean, don’t get me wrong – summer is great. I love the whole sunshine and being warm thing. But there’s also something about summer that can be, well, exhausting.
When the sun’s out, I feel compelled to take advantage of every gorgeous second. It’s hard to hunker down and work when people are inviting you out for bike rides, and hikes, and early afternoon happy hours on sunshiny patios.
Who wants to stay home for the weekend when you could go camping or out to the Oregon coast to get rained on? (You know. If you miss the rain in Portland in the summer you can always head to the coast.)
This morning was the first day that it truly smelled like fall. We’ve had our share of rainy, cold days, but this morning it smelled…different.
It smelled like a season of change.
I’ve been planning a personal retreat for a few months now. It coincides with a race that my husband is doing. I agreed to drive him to the start, and then I’m secreting myself away for the four days that he’ll be racing. Originally, I thought this could be a writing retreat where I could make some solid progress on a novel, or whatever needed done.
But now, with fall in the air, I’m taking this as an opportunity for personal reflection.
It comes at the perfect time – I’m ready to switch gears on a number of projects. A large business venture that my husband and I have been working on all summer long has been mostly put to bed. (At least, the most labor-intensive parts.) I’ve just put the finishing touches on an intensive novel revision, and sent it out the door to a couple of agents. I have a few big client projects on the docket, but I’m not wrapped up in anything big right now.
Basically, this is the perfect time for me to take a deep breath, look around at my life, and decide where I’m going from here.
I’ll report back after my personal retreat is over, but I wanted to offer a “before-and-after” look of how I’m planning this thing – both to have accountability, and to help others who are planning something similar.
Here are my guidelines:
I’m not going to go completely off the grid – partly because I think I might go crazy and partly because I’ve told a few clients that I’ll be available to chat about projects starting when I get back.
But I am going to limit my internet time to two hour-long sessions: one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Otherwise, I’ll unplug the modem and not use my phone to check email or social media.
(We’ll see how my willpower goes with the phone. I hesitate to put it on airplane mode because I’ll just worry the whole time that something happened to my husband on the race and no one can get ahold of me. If my willpower doesn’t work, I’ll install an app like Freedom.)
Personal Retreat Schedule
I’m thinking the best way to stay on target is to set myself a schedule. I’ll probably modify it as I go along, but at this point, I’m planning to start my day with exercise and meditation – something I always mean to do at home, but never quite get around to.
I’ll set two aside sessions in the morning and afternoon to do some serious work. I’m thinking at least one session per day will be a more “intentional working meditation” session, where I set my mind to mull over a topic while my body does something active. This will likely be either a hike or a woodworking project, of which I have several to complete.
The other session will be more practical application, like working on a book proposal outline, or outlining my next novel.
In the evenings, I’ll either read at home or head down to the local bar to have a drink and actually talk to other humans.
Because I want to show up on the first day of this personal retreat ready to work, I’m developing my list of intentions ahead of time.
Overall, I plan to examine my life as a whole and make sure I’m still on course. I’m really satisfied right now with my work, life, and relationships, but there definitely things I could improve on. One of my goals for this week will be to identify areas to improve and strategies to bring my life more in line with what I want it to be.
Because so much of my life is my work, I’ll be spending the bulk of my time considering that.
I always break my work into two parts – the freelance work I do for clients, and the fiction work I do for myself. I thoroughly enjoy both categories, and lately I’ve managed to get them to be about 50/50 when it comes to my overall workload. I’d like to keep it at that, so part of my considerations will be to look at my freelance marketing and niches to get more projects that I love and which pay well.
I expect that the freelance side of my business will float the fiction side of my business for a few more years – but ultimately I would like to make money writing fiction. It’ll take some strategic planning to get there.
The last thing I want to consider is travel. It’s been a few years since I’ve been on a big trip, which is something I find very important. I was really inspired by this recent interview that Ed Gandia did with Kevin Casey about freelancing and traveling. I’d love to find a practical way to incorporate more travel into my life.
Have you ever taken a personal retreat like this? What was your experience? I’d love to hear what goals you set and how you structured your time.
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