Much More Than A Writer

Make sure you join Girls With Pens on Facebook where we search out the best writing links from around the web every day so you don’t have to.

Check out Lisa’s post today: Fish Stories and Amazons – that crazy phenomenon and rite of passage for women surrounding the retelling of birth stories.

Check out Marcy’s post today: The Lie of Helen of Troy – Have you bought into the lie that beauty is purely physical and matters more than character, honor, or intelligence?

Gone are the days of writers sitting in their writing cave and never interacting with their readers, or having to promote themselves. Learning a variety of related skills is necessary today to be a successful income-earning writer/author. As a full-time freelance writer, a lot of work I take is writing-related, but not writing-only. But, through these various jobs, I’ve learned a number of valuable pre and post publication skills.

On the heels of my interview with James Scott Bell, I thought it would be beneficial to look at what kinds of skills, programs, etc. are valuable to have or work towards.

Some of the writing-related things I’ve been hired to do (and had to learn on the fly):

Write and submit event press releases for a large non-profit intended to get pre-event coverage in newspapers.

-related skills: researching editors/reporters, coordinating interviews, learning to catch reporters interest to get coverage, timing press releases to get timely coverage, collecting contacts

Value: Submitting press releases is mind-numbing a little boring, but every author needs to be able to get coverage about their book’s release and know how to catch a reader’s eye. Being able to write a compelling and news-worthy press release AND have it picked up by the media is invaluable.

Hired to write web copy.

-related skills:

  • learned to enter content and images to the back end of Joomla, Business Catalyst, and WordPress
  • learned about SEO (search engine optimization), web writing best practices, importance of backlinks, currency of content, cross-promotion across platforms, key word searches, naming photos, etc.
  • continuing to learn how to manipulate an e newsletter in mailchimp, creating lists, creating new templates, etc.
  • learned to focus on audience
  • continue to learn basic html coding
  • administration of social media accounts forces me to stay on top of all changes, keep my ear to the ground of how to best use various platforms, and build an audience

Value: Becoming an intermediate creator of web content gives the necessary skills to successfully keep up a blog/website. Eventually, building up an email list and sending out newsletters may become a valuable marketing tool.

Hired to ghostwrite books, speeches, and do research.

related skills: research and fact verification, adjusting your voice, writing within specific guidelines, interviewing skills, being flexible

Value: Ability to write for different mediums, outcomes, and audiences, adjusting the message accordingly.

Continue To Search For Work

To be a freelancer means that for tax purposes (in Canada at any rate) you have to prove you work for different employers, not just one. Plus, putting all your eggs in one basket (only taking work from one source) is risky because freelancers are easy to hire and easy to let go. Lots of turnover. This means continually searching out work, putting yourself out there, selling yourself. Taking several months off from finding work can leave you in an income lurch for months if you lose a contract for any reason.

Value: Learn your strengths and weaknesses, make insider contacts, gather recommendations, learn rejection isn’t personal – all kinds of great things.

Can you think of any other skills it would be valuable to learn or acquire to help your book’s success?


Subscribe to Marcy’s blog Life At Warp 10 and Lisa’s blog Through the Fire.

Connect with Marcy on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Connect with Lisa on Twitter, subscribe to her on Facebook, or follow her Pin Boards on Pinterest where she’s pinned all kind of photos used as inspiration for our co-written novel.

What It Takes To Succeed

How do you find time for all that, I’m often asked. How did you accomplish so much in so little time with your writing? Here’s the honest answer: I don’t do anything else.

The mark of a successful income-earning writer is that they’re dedicated, disciplined, and focused.

woman asleep at laptopIn late 2008, Marcy and I sat down together at Write! Canada, a writer’s conference we try to make a point of attending every year. We decided to cowrite a few articles about a shared experience, and were also asked to take on a book review column. Those two decisions launched our writing careers early in 2009 when those articles began appearing, and we started writing full-time. We launched this blog in November 2010 which has given us further credibility.

So, here’s an insider’s view into our messed up chaotic schedule. You want to know what it takes to be able to write full-time? Here’s the down and dirty details:

How many hours/days a week do you write on average?

Marcy: I’m writing 7 days a week (on average) between the grant writing company that I’m on retainer with, my freelance work (both writing and editing), my blog, Girls With Pens, and our co-written novel. My long-term goal is to cut back to 6 days a week. I’d love to have a 5-day work week, but I think that’s impossible for writers. A girl can dream though.

Lisa: I try not to look at it in terms of hours – it’s too depressing. I write 7 days a week. Mon-Fri I work 9-5, and then go back to it after 9pm when the kids are in bed for another 2-4hours. I’m working freelance for 3 non-profits, and am on retainer with a fourth. I accept work from one small business, and write regularly for a few magazines and newspapers which means I’m always looking for a good story and interviewing people. I also write my own blog, Girls With Pens, and am writing a fiction manuscript with Marcy. I try not to work a lot on weekends, 2-4 hours at the most each day when the kids are awake, then more after they’re in bed. If I’ve been up late, I’ll crash for an hour or so in the morning after the kids go to school.

What time do you shut down the laptop at night?

Marcy: Do I have to answer this one honestly? Right now, I usually fall asleep with my laptop in my lap, and my husband has to come wake me up. Some nights it’ll be 1am before I crash. Other nights, it’s more like 11pm. (P.S. Don’t try this at home. It’s a recipe for eventual total meltdown.) I’m not always writing that late though. Sometimes I’m paying bills, answering emails, etc. There’s never enough time in a day.

Lisa: I’m bad for this. I’m often up until at least midnight, if I’m under a deadline for a blog post it’s not unusual for me to be up until 2am.

What’s your most productive writing time?

Marcy: I’m not one of these writers who can get up and crank out 1,000 words before breakfast. (I could try, but it would be a waste because I’m not at my best.) I’m most productive between 1pm and 7pm.

Lisa: I’m not a morning person. I tend to do my blog reading and social media in the morning because I don’t have to think as much. My best writing times are 1pm til about 4pm, and then 9pm and on.

What other hobbies do you spend time doing?

Marcy: I play the flute and World of Warcraft (it’s endorsed by Chuck Norris you know), and I train our one-year-old Great Dane in obedience. I read, but I’m not sure anymore if that’s a hobby or work related. Most of my hobbies are so neglected they’re buried in dust.

Lisa: I don’t. I go to a writer’s club meeting for 2 hours once a month. Between running kids to cheerleading, horseback riding, aikido, helping with paper routes and homework, and trying to keep the health department from storming my house, there’s no time for anything else. I try to get out and walk the dog. A real treat is to go out to a movie with friends, cuddle with the hubs in front of the tv, go shopping with my girls, or take a weekend off to read a novel.

What has caused you to miss publishing a blog post on your scheduled day?

Marcy: As of yet, I’ve never missed a scheduled day 🙂

Lisa: I’ve never missed posting a blog. For me, it’s a credibility issue so I make it a priority even when I get a last minute assignment from an editor with a short deadline, or a frantic email from a non-profit that x or y needs to be done yesterday.

Where in your house do you eat breakfast and lunch?

Marcy: Clearly these questions are meant to bring out all my dirty laundry for public viewing 🙂 I eat lunch wherever my laptop is because I usually do social media while eating breakfast and lunch.

Lisa: C’mon – I didn’t make you share what you wear to ‘work’ 🙂 I eat breakfast and lunch at my desk, that’s when I do a lot of my social networking and blog reading.

How do you decide which new projects or assignments to take on and which to turn down?

Marcy: Three simple questions:

(1)   Do we need the money to pay our bills?

(2)   Will it advance my long-term career goal of writing novels?

(3)   Does it help support a charity/cause that hits me in the heart?

I also consider whether I’ll enjoy it.

Lisa: Freelancing is a bit like feast or famine. One week I have time on my hands and my house is super clean, other weeks I’m so busy I forget to eat.

1) The job has to be interesting to me, or further a cause I’m passionate about

2) Depends on my workload at the time and the publication date. I often get work because I’m willing to accommodate a short deadline. An editor will say, I’m looking for x but I need it by Friday (this is Monday), but it won’t come out for 4 months. Translation: I don’t get paid for 4 months. I’m constantly searching for more freelance opportunities because a gap in work can mean no income for months.

3) Will it help or hinder my ultimate goal of writing novels?

As you can see, we’re busy. We rarely see each other at all, we communicate through a frenzied flurry of emails, IM’s, Tweets and Facebook messages. (If Marcy would start texting we could probably eliminate at least 3 of those things.)

We don’t miss deadlines. We deliver quality material to our employers and editors that garners us more work from them, and from word of mouth. We’re focused and determined to reach the same goal, and we don’t let much else distract us from that. People have accused us of being ‘intense’ and ‘too-driven’. Maybe.

We both agree that we’re looking for better balance once we get this novel finished – of course, ultimately we want to be able to stop freelancing as much and just write fiction. Are you this passionate, dedicated, focused, on your writing? What’s your ultimate goal in all of this writing frenzy?


Can You Earn A Living As A Freelance Writer?

When Lisa and I teach at writer’s conferences, we often hear the question “Can I earn a living as a writer?” (If we’re being honest, isn’t every writer’s dream to quit their “day job”?)

If you’ve read our bios, you know that Lisa and I both work full-time as freelance writers and editors. But we also know people who don’t make a living from their writing.

So I thought I’d create a little quiz to help you figure out whether a career in writing is right for you.

Rate yourself on a scale of 1-5 for each of these questions, and add up your score.

Why do you want a career in writing?
1 – Everyone’s doing it.
2 – Writing is an easy way to make money.
3 – I need to find a second career because I retired/was fired from the first one.
4 – I really enjoy writing, and I’d like to see if I can turn something I enjoy into a career.
5 – I feel driven/called to write, and I would write even if I didn’t get paid for it.

How many hours a week can you devote to launching your freelance career?
1 – Wait, you mean this is going to take a lot of time?
2 – I can eke out an hour or two.
3 – If I sacrifice some things like TV or Farmville, I can find a good 10 hours.
4 – I can write part-time for a minimum of 20 hours a week.
5 – I can go full-time right now because I’m independently wealthy or have a spouse who’s the bread-earner.

Are you prepared to market yourself by networking in person at conferences, setting up a website/blog, speaking, and joining social networking sites?
1 – Not a chance. Not gonna do it. I’m a writer. Promotion, marketing, and branding are someone else’s job.
2 – The hunchback of Notre Dame has more social skills than I do, and people scare me.
3 – I have no idea how to do any of that, but I’m willing to learn.
4 – I’m already on social networking sites, and am actively learning about how to market myself and build a platform.
5 – I have a website, blog, social networking accounts, and I’ve already attended some conferences.

How well do you take criticism, and how willing are you to learn from others?
1 – Screw you, I’m perfect.
2 – God gave me this idea, and the message is what’s important, so my writing skills don’t really matter.
3 – I can learn how to write on my own. I don’t need help.
4 – It takes me a while to accept the mistakes I’m making or to understand concepts, but I want to improve.
5 – Bring it on! At least if I know what stinks, I can fix it.

How flexible are you about what you write?
1 – I want to write a novel. Period.
2 – I didn’t know I’d have to write something other than what I love to make ends meet.
3 – I’m open to the idea of writing other things, but I’d rather not.
4 – I might be willing to take some less glamorous work (e.g. editing, copywriting) if it pays well.
5 – Call me Gumby. I’m willing to take any writing or editing jobs that will pay the bills to get my start.

How is your grasp on the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling?
1 – I dont no nothing about them.
2 – Isn’t that what editors are for?
3 – I’m a quick learner. I’ll start brushing up right now. (Or I’m a slow learner, but I’m a hard worker.)
4 – I received excellent grades in English classes during high school and university.
5 – I am a grammar Nazi.

Have you received positive feedback on your writing?
1 – Not yet.
2 – Yes, but only from my husband/wife or best friend.
3 – I’ve had quite a few people tell me how much they enjoy my writing.
4 – I’ve had professionals tell me that my writing is ready, but I haven’t had anything published yet.
5 – I already have published clips and have been paid for my writing.

How do you think you’ll handle family/friends who disapprove of your career choice?
1 – I would quit if I didn’t have the full support of my loved ones.
2 – I’m too embarrassed to tell my friends and family that I’m considering full-time freelancing.
3 – It would take me a while to recover from their disapproval, but I think I’d eventually press forward.
4 – I’ll show them. They won’t stop me.
5 – I don’t expect everyone to agree with the choices I’ve made or the opinions I express. I would have to respectfully tell everyone else that we’ll have to agree to disagree. This is my life and my choice.


8 to 16 – I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, but you probably want to look elsewhere for a career. Write as a hobby.

17 to 31 – You’re getting there, but you have a few obstacles to overcome and more learning to do before I’d recommend a career change. Many people fail at turning writing into a career because they jump into it before they’re ready.

32 to 40 – This career comes with no guarantees, but you’ve got as good a chance as anyone to earn a full-time living as a freelance writer.

How did you score? What else do you think it takes to earn a living as a freelance writer?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Do It With Style and Grace

If you want to write and have your work published, there’s one word that will get under your skin faster than any other–rejection. The road to being published, whether it’s article writing, journalism or book publishing, is a crowded one full of all sorts of bumps — one is rejection.  But not every rejection letter is bad.

Everyone Gets Rejected Sometime

Reality Check: Every writer who’s ever been published has been rejected at some time. I can’t prove that, but I feel quite confident in making that statement. If you are so afraid of receiving a rejection letter you never send out your work, or ask anyone to read it, then it’s going to be very difficult-well impossible, to get published. Successful writers learn to take rejection in stride. I received a rejection letter this week that stung. I felt their form rejection letter was unnecessarily harsh, so I dealt with it in a mature way–a large quantity of chocolate. An hour later I was back writing.

Don’t Take It Personally

Let me say that again: Don’t take it personally. When an editor or agent rejects your query or submission, don’t take it personally. They are not rejecting you — only the work you’ve submitted at that time. Some rejections are easier to take than others, but it’s that editor’s or agent’s opinion and it’s an evaluation of the work, not you.

Don’t Set Yourself Up

The most common reason for being rejected by an editor, in my opinion, is querying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. You’re just setting yourself up for rejection by querying Seven, a men’s magazine, about feminine hygiene. Likewise, if a magazine has recently published on the topic you’re proposing, they’re not going to print another piece on it without a significant twist to the article.

Fazal Karim, Jr., editor for The Christian Herald said: “People write in wanting us to publish personal thoughts or motivational things that are more suited to a blog. Or personal testimonies and poetry. Anyone who reads the Herald knows we rarely publish stuff like that.

Bill Fledderus, editor for Faith Today says, “We see way too many vague queries outlining a possible field that is too large to manage in one article. What’s the angle?

You want to play the game – learn the rules.

Take It Like A Man

I was surfing through various literary agency websites this week. I had to smile at how many say something to the effect of: Please don’t email us and tell us we’re wrong about your submission. Or – Please don’t phone or write to us about how we’re going to regret passing on this opportunity to publish your work. My personal favourite: Please don’t threaten us. Take it like a man. If you get a rejection, move on. Arguing, belittling or otherwise insulting the editor or agent who’s just doing their job is not going to win you any points in the future, and it’s definitely not going to change their minds. Would you want to work with someone who’s just called you an idiot? And here’s something to keep in mind — editors and agents talk to each other. Word travels.

Not Every Rejection Letter Is Bad

I know, rejection is rejection. However, many editors will take a minute to give you a word of encouragement or instruction on how to make your work better. That’s gold! Take it to heart. I had one editor tell me he liked the piece but couldn’t use it. He encouraged me by saying it was publishable to be sure and try it elsewhere.

We’ve both gotten our fair share of form rejection letters. We file those in the appropriate receptacle, and move on. And you should too. (Just be sure not to resend a piece already rejected. That’s a fast track to the blocked senders list.)


Employ The Rule Of 3

Marcy and I both employ what we call ‘the rule of 3’ when it comes to rejection. If we have an idea for an article and get rejected by our first choice, we’ll try it twice more to different editors before giving up on the idea. Maybe it’s just a bad idea, or bad timing. Just move on and try something else. (Of course, this won’t apply to novels and books. Don’t give up so easily.) We write full time, and we can do that because we never have just one query out there at a time. So, it may take six months for us to receive three rejections on one idea, but we’ve sold five or ten others in the meantime. Takes the sting out of the rejection.

Have you been rejected recently? Tell us about it.


Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Part 2

Last week, Lisa let you into the twisted caverns of her mind to give you some idea-generating help. Today it’s my turn. Since we use some of the same methods, I won’t rehash what’s already been said. Instead, I’ll give you some new ideas and maybe a few of them will be the ones that turn out to be perfect for you.

What’s Your Problem?

Last year I sold an article to In Touch (the magazine for Charles Stanley’s ministry) based on my struggle to forgive the drunk driver who killed my best friend. We all like to think that our problems are unique or that we have it rougher than anyone else, but the truth is that at any moment, someone else is going through what you’re going through. Bring a little good out of those struggles by using them to both further your career and help others.

A few guidelines before you start:

  • Make sure you point out how your experience can help a wide audience of people. My article wasn’t meant to help only people who’d lost a loved one to a drunk driver; it was aimed at anyone who’d been deeply hurt and didn’t know how to forgive.
  • Come out the other side before you try to write about it. This not only gives you more objectivity, but it also allows you to offer potential solutions to the problem.
  • If it’s not a problem that you’re ever really “over,” find experts who can speak to how to deal with it long-term.
  • List the people you’ll mention (both directly and indirectly), and ensure that you can write without hurting their feelings or their reputation. If you’re not certain, ask someone you trust, and get an unbiased pair of eyes to read the article once you finish. Even when you’ve done your best, people might get offended. You can’t always prevent that, but exercise due diligence in the process.

Take Scissors to Your Local Newspaper

Lisa mentioned that the biggest problems with getting ideas from the news are that they’ve already been written about and the market can quickly become saturated. You’re probably wondering how you can possibly get ahead of the wave or find news-worthy ideas that no one else has caught on to yet. It sounds like a lot of work.

I’m a big fan of working smarter, not harder. (I think of the old cartoon DuckTales every time I say that.) One thing I like to do is go through my local paper with a pair of scissors. I divide up what I gather into two piles. The first pile is for “experts” that I might be able to use in a future story. This week I found a Christian counselor who has a list of qualifications and specializes in suicide. I felt like someone gave me a giant, calorie-free chocolate bar.

The second pile is for ideas that currently have a local slant, but which I might be able to make national. For example, if a local church is hosting an event and you can find other churches or organizations across the country mobilizing for the same cause, you might just have a story.

And don’t forget to skim the letters to the editor. Some of it will be very specific to your town, but the rest of it will give you insights into what people are worried and wondering about.

A local story won’t be read by the same number of people as a national story, especially if you live in a small town of 10,000 as I do. Yet someone else has done the work of discovery. All that’s left for you to do is to make it your own and tune it to the Christian market (unless you want to write for secular magazines and then it’s even easier for you).

Anniversaries and Annual Events

Having recently finished an article on the three lessons we can learn from giving something up for Lent, one source of ideas that I couldn’t pass up suggesting to you is anniversaries and annual events. The Haiti articles that Lisa and I are working on are another example of where we’ve benefitted from keeping in mind milestones.

Timing is everything when you pitch an anniversary or annual event. If possible, you need to know how far in advance a publication assigns articles. Because ChristianWeek is a newspaper, for example, you can pitch a story with a month lead time, but a magazine like The Lookout wants queries no less than six months in advance. Unlike with other stories, these articles need to be published as close to the date as possible. If you query too late and they have that issue planned already, they can’t just slot your story into the next issue the way they might with a less time-sensitive idea.

That said, if you’re pitching an annual event, editors are always in need of a fresh take on something they’ve had to deal with every year. For anniversaries, focus on the big numbers (like one year, ten years, or fifty years), and be ready to show why that anniversary will interest the readers of that particular publication.

Have any other great ideas you’d like to share? Leave a comment.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.