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.
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.