Saturday, January 06, 2007

January: Plan

Writers love to talk about the creative side of the biz, but rarely about the biz side of being creative. You can't have one without the other, so at least once a month I'll be writing about the other side of our profession: writing as a business. This month: the writing/business plan.

Long before I became a pro writer, I worked in the corporate world (where I learned to be the compassionate, sweet-tempered, lovable person that I am.) As comptroller of an international company, I managed budgets, accounts and transfers that bounced between seven countries and often ran into the millions. Without a comprehensive business plan, I'd have been swamped in a week and completely lost in a month.

During my rookie year in publishing I was repeatedly told that writers couldn't create viable business plans. I know many writers don't have much practical business or accounting experience, but that didn't make sense to me. The biz, as weird as it can get, isn't much different from any corporation I've worked for. Being an author is no different than being any sort of non-union sub-contractor, except that we don't have to use blow torches, carry our lunch in steel pails, or group together to make animal sounds at passing cute guy agents.

Okay, there was that one time at National, but Donald Maass came up to me because he wanted to read what my T-shirt said. And I only did it after he walked away.

Anyway, working off an estimate of annual income based on contracted work was the first thing I did. Then, after seeing several writers spend themselves into bankruptcy court, I put myself on a strict budget to track and control my expenses. I'd been working by a personal productivity plan that had already kept me focused and writing steadily for ten years before I sold, so it seemed only natural to plan and organize everything else.

What can I say -- my spices are racked in alphabetical order.

Today I begin every calendar year with a writing/business plan that defines my immediate, short-term and long-term business goals; provides me with a detailed budget, work calendar and submission schedule; projects my expenses in relation to my estimated income, and basically organizes me the writer as me the business. It's never perfect, but it keeps me from over-spending, wasting my writing time, being sucked into overthrowing another third world country, or getting distracted by peripherals that have no business in my business.

If you think of writing as a journey, the writing/business plan is both the road map and the tolls schedule.

A business plan can help most writers become more time-productive and cost-efficient, and it doesn't have to a huge complicated thing. The basic parts are your goals, a work plan, and projecting your expenses and your income. Remember that the plan is yours and yours alone; make it user-friendly.

Let's break down a very basic plan for a writer who is only planning to write one novel this year:

2007: Write a new novel and submit it for consideration.

The annual goal is what one works toward for a year. You can create any sort of goal, write whatever you want and change the goal as needed, but remember to keep it realistic (use the one to ten scale: writing one book per year is realistic, writing ten books is probably not.) The more work expectation you pile on yourself, the heavier the daily workload becomes.

1. Daily work goal: 300 new words, or 1 page.

Writing as a daily habit helps train you for that time when you have to write every day as a professional. If you can't write daily, plan and stick to the days in the week when you can. Also, it's a good idea to designate your writing times and stick to them (i.e. every night from 7-11pm; every morning from 4-5am, etc.) and make sure your family and loved ones are aware of and are okay with this. If you're not sure how long it takes you to write the words to meet your daily goal, time yourself writing that daily goal for one week and average it out.

Don't be nervous about this goal, either. If you can plan to eat sensibly, watch a TV show, have wild monkey sex and moisturize on a daily basis, you can do the same thing with writing. Just do all the other stuff when you're not writing.

2. Weekly work goal: 2K in new words; one-pass edit of WIP.

If you didn't make goal for the week, plan an extra hour over the weekend to make up the writing, or add in what you didn't write to next week's quota (don't do this too often; you'll end up with an impossible daily goal that will make you feel defeated before you start to write.) When you know ahead of time that your writing schedule is going to be disrupted, write a little more than quota for the day so you can "buy" that time off from writing.

A one-pass edit, btw, is a single read-through and correct. It does not mean one pass until page 4, back up, rewrite, another pass to page 9, back up, tear up page, rewrite page, a third pass backward to page 1, tear out hair, call WIP names, etc.

3. Monthly work goal: Verify 9K written in new words; research and find one new publisher and/or agent for prospective submission list.

Use a monthly goal check to see where you're at with your WIP as well as to look at how well you're working. If there's an ongoing problem, try to think up a creative solution to it and adjust your plan accordingly. This is also a good time to check on your income and expenses and make sure you're staying within your budget.

Once a month check in with your family, too. If they're not speaking to you, or don't remember who you are, you may need to adjust the amount of time you're spending writing.

4. Annual work goal: Finish novel, submit to twelve publishers and agents.

This is the self-imposed deadline for the year. If this writer writes according to plan, there should be a couple of weeks for a final comprehensive edit of the manuscript, writing up query and cover letters, checking on any changes with the publishers and agents on the submission plan, etc. This is also a good time to reflect about the previous year and ways to improve performance, income and career (which helps with writing next year's business plan.)

If you made your goal, be sure to reward yourself in some significant way. If you didn't make your goal, don't beat yourself up. Fly down to Florida and I'll do it for you! No, seriously, give yourself credit for what you did accomplish, and see what you can learn from not making plan (it will help to adjust next year's plan to accommodate the problem that kept you from finishing.)

5. New Endeavor Goal: write and submit short story to genre publication.

This is optional. In my business plan, I include one new endeavor goal and one outrageous goal every year. A new endeavor goal, for example, can be anything from writing in a new genre to publishing a promotional e-book. Outrageous goals are things that are usually beyond my means and/or present capabilities, like buying the Hope Diamond or running over to borrow a cup of sugar from Stuart MacBride. I almost always nail the new endeavor goal (six out of seven so far), and almost never the outrageous one (one out of seven to date), but it adds a nice incentive for me to work a little harder and budget myself a little better. One can only depend on so many job offers for work as a jungle-combat mercenary.

Annual Expense Budget: $347.00 [printer paper ($27.00), ink cartridge ($50.00), monthly internet access ($120.00), research books ($75.00), postage ($25.00), misc. office supplies ($50.00.)]

This is where you figure out what it costs to write for a year. The only other thing you may need is a planner where you can record what you've written each day, a ledger or spreadsheet to keep track of your expenses, and a submission schedule. You can write this up on paper and start a business plan notebook, or use software or freeware to track it electronically. One trick I employ with tracking expenses is to use one credit card solely for business expenses, which helps a lot with the bookkeeping.

Note: Hershey's kisses and M&Ms are not yet a deductible business expense, but I'm still pestering the IRS.

Income: $15.00/week from day job paycheck to writing account = $780.00/year*

And this is how you're going to pay for your writing expenses for a year. A published writer can project their writing income according to contract payouts. I divide my income between household and professional accounts, but I make it a habit to allocate twice the money I actually need in the writing account as a bumper for emergency expenses. At the end of the year whatever I have leftover I either carry over to the next year as rainy day funds, or invest it in hardware, software, books, automatic weapons, grenades, shark repellent, etc.

A business plan may seem a little dull and boring, but working with it can help you stay on top of how productive you are, move your project along and send up a flag if you need to scale back on your spending. For example, if you continually can't meet your daily wordcount goal, it likely needs to be adjusted to a lower figure, or you need to allocate more time to writing. If you know in advance that you can't afford this year's writing expenses, you can cut out what's not necessary and look for cheaper alternatives to what is. It also impresses the family when they disrupt your schedule: pass out copies and gravely inform them that refereeing the screaming argument over who gets to hold the remote is not listed under your daily goal.

You've all had a week off to recover for the holidays, so this weekend consider drafting a writing/business plan for 2007. Like I said, it doesn't have to be complicated, but if you stick to it, it will help you make the most of the writing year ahead.

Related links:

Dolphinity Software's Planner freeware may help you organize your business plans (Freeware caution: always scan free downloads of anything for bugs and other threats before dumping the programs into your hard drive.)

The United States Small Business Administration has an excellent web page devoted to business planning along with links to example business plans, including one for a magazine publisher.

27 comments:

  1. Why have I not yet alphabatized my spices? I'm doing that tomorrow! Was that not the point of this post?

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  2. "What can I say -- my spices are racked in alphabetical order."

    Yours too?

    (Trust a couple of blog commenters to say something about the throwaway line and ignore the meat of your post.)

    Actually, I've spent the past fifteen years designing and writing financial software of one sort or another - accounts, shares, order tracking, you name it - so I don't need to say "good idea!" to the rest ;-)

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  3. Hmm...spice racks...what are those? I don't cook, because my mom banned me from the kitchen. I caught our microwave on fire trying to make microwave popcorn, and I'm not joking about that.

    As for the plan, I've always had trouble doing the planning for writing. Maybe that's why the periods in which I write have no rhyme or reason and usually result in chaos throughout the home. However, the way you've explained it makes it seem so easy that I will do this tomorrow. Thanks for the kick in the butt to get started.

    Jason

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  4. I *heart* my business plan. And I'll be forever grateful that I learned project management in Corporate Land. It's a creative business, but it's still running a business.

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  5. Excellent advice. I just want to add one additional tip for those who are published enough to depend on outside payments for important expenses. They'll be late. Count on it, plan for it, and make sure you have enough of a financial cushion to deal with it.

    A corollary to this is don't quit your day job unless and until you have enough of a financial cushion to deal with late payments.

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  6. oddly... i feel even more disorganized than ever... lol

    My plan, the bare basics are to finish two contracted books and fit some shorter books to submit to my e publishers. I reckon I can try doing a more detailed plan....

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  7. Thank you for this! One of my goals this year was to figure out how the hell writers are supposed to make a business plan (especially the ones that have no current income)... this post was truly an an answered prayer!

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  8. How many third world countries did you have to overthrow before you realized what a drain on resources they are and how distracting they were to completing the writing plan?

    Yeah, that walk to Stuart's place is a toughie.

    There's a simple solution to the Hershey kiss crisis. Name the next puppy you get Hershey. All kisses then become free. The downside? Not much chocolate flavor. They are, however, calorie and fat free. (Personal experience talking here.)

    Excellent post, simply presented. Thank you for you consistent reminders about how to handle the business side of this business. I'm trying something new this year -- I set up a private PBWiki (PBWiki.com) to manage/integrate my various business and personal endeavors.

    Oh, and I also use a separate credit card for writing business expenses -- I think as a result of something you said a couple years ago.

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  9. I must do this. I really should. I know better than to not do this.

    We'll see how far I get.

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  10. Oh my this is EXACTLY what I need! Thanks so much for this post!

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  11. If I didn't make my living working with computers, I would have had Emeril's job. I thought EVERYONE alphabetizes their spices!

    I have been considering going on my own as a computer consulting company, so creating a business plan is something I am currently working on. Making a business plan for writing was something I never considered, but will definitely do.

    Great tip Sheila!

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  12. You have an organized spice rack, and I do well to find my shoes on a daily basis. ^_^

    I've actually been doing an okay job of tracking my writing expenses, but I'd never looked at it as far as managing my money to be sure I have enough to pay for all my writing expenses. Hm. This has put me to thinking...

    Thanks for posting this.

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  13. Thanks for posting this, PBW. Hope your knee's better and leave those third world countries alone!

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  14. Excellent post. I thought I was the only writer who did a yearly business plan. (Yes, I keep my spices in alphabetical order as well. Do you think the two are on the same gene?)

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  15. What great advice. I especially like the idea of planning things in small increments and building them into a larger plan. Somehow the idea of committing to "write 1 page a day" doesn't seem ovewhelming the way "write an entire novel" does. Yet if you can accomplish Small Goal # 1, it will add up to Larger Goal.

    I have a sort-of OT question, although it does relate to business. I wasn't able to find an e-mail to send it privately - sorry. I really liked your idea of posting an original story to a blog or other public site to help generate interest in one's work. However, how do you go about protecting that work? How can you make sure that someone doesn't take your story (or story idea) and try to sell it as his or her own? Is it possible to maintain a copyright (for lack of better word) on something published on the internet?

    Thanks! And Happy New Year.

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  16. That is a really useful post, thank you. As a mere beginner, it had never occurred to me to write a business plan for writing.

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  17. Excellent advice. Thanks!

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  18. Anonymous11:24 PM

    Man, you're lucky. You got mentioned on BoingBoing! That site has, what, a few million hits a day?

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  19. Great post. I track finances for taxes and writing goals annually, monthly and weekly, but I've never put the two together before. I'll have to try this. Personally, I don't like spending more than I have, so your idea of putting the money away up front makes perfect sense to me.

    Well, as long as the chocolate budget is separate that is. Oh, and yes, I do alphabetize my spices as well. A recent development after years of being unable to find what I was looking for that I've imposed on all my family :).

    Cheers,
    Margaret

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  20. Hanna wrote: Why have I not yet alphabatized my spices? I'm doing that tomorrow! Was that not the point of this post?

    Absolutely. The business plan stuff was just filler. ;)

    Simon wrote: Actually, I've spent the past fifteen years designing and writing financial software of one sort or another - accounts, shares, order tracking, you name it - so I don't need to say "good idea!" to the rest.

    And you alphabetize your spices, too, which only adds to your perfections.

    Jason wrote: I caught our microwave on fire trying to make microwave popcorn, and I'm not joking about that.

    Don't feel bad. I did the same thing to a pan of Jiffy-Pop on a gas stove once.

    Charlene wrote: I *heart* my business plan. And I'll be forever grateful that I learned project management in Corporate Land. It's a creative business, but it's still running a business.

    I wish there were more books on the business of authoring, though. If Judith Ivory hadn't given me some very specific tax advice my first year out, I'd have screwed up a lot of things.

    Katherine wrote: Excellent advice. I just want to add one additional tip for those who are published enough to depend on outside payments for important expenses. They'll be late. Count on it, plan for it, and make sure you have enough of a financial cushion to deal with it.

    Excellent point -- and another reason to keep the business account healthy.

    Shiloh wrote: My plan, the bare basics are to finish two contracted books and fit some shorter books to submit to my e publishers. I reckon I can try doing a more detailed plan....

    Don't sweat it. If a daily goal hems you in, and you don't feel like doing that much tracking, go for just a weekly and monthly check on how you're doing.

    Wendelin wrote: One of my goals this year was to figure out how the hell writers are supposed to make a business plan (especially the ones that have no current income)

    One thing I used to do was to figure out pay rates for everything I planned to submit and note them on my submission schedule. If a rejection came in, I tried to send out a new submission to a new prospect offering the same pay rate. It sounds a bit anal, but I was doing a lot of short pieces and freelancing locally, and I picked up repeat work from people I sold to, so in a few years I was able to roughly estimate my income based on what I expected to sell, if that makes any sense.

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  21. Jean wrote: How many third world countries did you have to overthrow before you realized what a drain on resources they are and how distracting they were to completing the writing plan?

    Lemme think. Six. Well, Prince Charles really didn't help much when we invaded the Malvinas (he got so seasick), so seven.

    May wrote: I must do this. I really should. I know better than to not do this.

    Remember you can keep the plan open and flexible, and make changes as necessary.

    Jeanette wrote: Thanks so much for this post!

    You're welcome, ma'am.

    BJ wrote: I thought EVERYONE alphabetizes their spices!

    I just can't figure why someone wouldn't, especially if your eyesight is bad. I know exactly where the basil is on my rack, which is good, because to me it looks exactly like the oregano, the fennel and the marjoram.

    Cora wrote: I've actually been doing an okay job of tracking my writing expenses, but I'd never looked at it as far as managing my money to be sure I have enough to pay for all my writing expenses. Hm. This has put me to thinking...

    Budgeting really helped me when money was tight. Pre-planning what expenses I could afford and how to pay for them took a lot of worry and guilt off my shoulders. It also helps you develop good self-discipline and financial awareness; something that comes in handy when you have a bigger income and may be tempted to blow a lot of money on something.

    Dawn wrote: Hope your knee's better and leave those third world countries alone!

    The knee is still holding together, the steroid shots should kick in on Monday, and I got a new brace that looks scary but feels lovely. All third world countries are safe for now. :)

    Darlene wrote: Yes, I keep my spices in alphabetical order as well. Do you think the two are on the same gene?

    The I Can't Stand Unplanned Business and Not Knowing Where the Bay Leaves Are gene, maybe?

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  22. Lynn wrote: I really liked your idea of posting an original story to a blog or other public site to help generate interest in one's work. However, how do you go about protecting that work? How can you make sure that someone doesn't take your story (or story idea) and try to sell it as his or her own? Is it possible to maintain a copyright (for lack of better word) on something published on the internet?

    Anything you write is copyrighted the minute you write it, whether that's on paper or via an electronic medium like the internet.

    You can get an ISSN number for your blog for free (details are here). It doesn't protect your work in the same way copyright does, but it creates an official record of your blog and can be used as supporting documentation for possible future litigation.

    General if you publish something online and someone plagiarizes it on their blog or site, you can ask them to take it down and if they don't, you can notify their ISP or take it as far as to court. International sites (notably, Russian) often copy blog content, but it's just about impossible for an average citizen to take them to court or shut them down.

    Because the internet is so accessible, you should regularly check places like Copyscape to see if your weblog content is being copied elsewherethere. If your story is one you'd like to see published in print someday, and/or you feel it has a good chance of being lifted, you might consider keeping it off the web altogether.

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  23. Jennyta wrote: That is a really useful post, thank you

    You're welcome, ma'am.

    Scott wrote: Excellent advice. Thanks!

    My pleasure, sir.

    Anonymous wrote: Man, you're lucky. You got mentioned on BoingBoing!

    How sweet. Cory must be having a slow day.

    Margaret wrote: I track finances for taxes and writing goals annually, monthly and weekly, but I've never put the two together before. I'll have to try this.

    You can do them separately, of course, but I look at the writing as a product, the royalties as accounts receivable, the expenses as accounts payable, etc.

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  24. Lleeo3:20 AM

    Thanks so much for putting the time into writing this post, PBW. If you want to be a writer, I believe you do have to have a sense of purpose and at least some sort of plan. At least if you plan on writing more than one text. Treating it like a business that needs to be organized and budgeted for will help make tentative plans and goals easier to achieve.

    I'm kind of babbling, but really, it's very helpful to see how both sides of the writing business works. Thanks for going over it so thoroughly. I still love to own a hard copy of "Way of the Cheetah." ^_~

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  25. I also really want to thank you for this post. It's extreemly helpful and insightful and most importantly realistic. Everytime I finish a great writing session I get up and start thinking about how I am ever going to get this published. Breaking it down like this makes it do-able.

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

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  26. This is very good advice! It's the way I was able to quit my "real job" and have, for the past two years made more freelance writing than I did working. Of course, I probably suffer from an over abundance of self-motivation :)

    Jordan Rosenfeld

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  27. "Working Titles?"
    love that title for this post - - the double meaning.
    Get this: my biographer actually published a couple chapters of my biography under the title: "Lost In Kingdom Come." I finally said, call it RUTHIE BLACK, you idiot!

    www.ruthieblacknude.blogspot.com

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