Posted by: tksellman | January 3, 2009

Business Plans for Writers?

Over the last few years I’ve worked away at developing a business plan for my writing life.

Now, before you smirk and say, “That’s just more busywork,” let’s get one thing straight. Just as there is no wasted writing, there is no wasted planning in the writing life. There’s a lot of “busywork” that goes into the writing life that’s just never seen by those who read the end product, and that’s sort of the goal, isn’t it? To make something appear simpler than it is? That’s the magic of good writing: to convey your story in a manner that leaves your readers inspired by the story itself. The less they notice you, the writer, the better, right?

So let’s talk about how to put together a writer’s business plan. Now is perhaps the best time to make projections since it’s the beginning of the calendar year, though I usually set my business plan for the fall to coincide with the academic year. Anyone who’s ready to start a serious writing career can start this planning at any time, at any stage, in their lives as well. The point is to make a plan.

Part of the purpose of the plan is to put into writing one’s objectives. But you have to have objectives first, right?

Well, no. First, you should define your writing life.

Portrait of your writing life
What do you write in terms of genre? Length? POV? Form? Why do you write? Who do you write for? What are you good at? Where do your interests lie? What is a reasonable earnings goal for you as a commercial writer?

Once you have this pastiche of your writing life pasted inside Anne Lamott’s 1-inch picture frame, then you can plan to your heart’s content.

(What’s Anne Lamott’s 1-inch picture frame, you ask? It’s her way of reducing her task to those things she can “see” inside a 1-inch picture frame. By delimiting your options, you end up prioritizing what’s most important to you and making your projects manageable. Really, you must read her description in Bird by Bird to get the full value of what this means.)

Now that you have an illustration of the quilt that’s your writing life, now it’s time to make plans to stitch it all together. Don’t fear, you don’t get one year and one year only to do this; writing is a lifetime endeavour, so your goals should reflect a desire to improve slowly over time, at the pace you can best manage.

Next, you should list all the specific projects you’d like to start, maintain, and/or complete over the next year or so. This should include all the different writing you plan to do.

For example, my list this year includes maintaining multiple blogs, finishing a commercial novel, revising a literary novel, writing the first draft of a nonfiction how-to book, revising a children’s book, pursuing work in food journalism, and writing a series of PR pieces to help promote a writing friend of mine who’s coming out with a fabulous memoir this summer.

Portrait of your support system
How will I get all this done? Not by myself.

In this stage of the business plan for writers, you need to put together a list of people and resources that will help you meet your goals. For me, it includes a few writer/reader friends to review revised manuscripts, a couple of editors, blogging pros who I want to network with more frequently, experts in the subject matter I’m covering in the how-to book, and the friend (and her related contacts) I’ll be spending time with to put together those PR articles.

My list also includes a seed library of titles for research (for both novels, the kids’ book, the how-to book, food writing in general and markets guides for the articles I hope to publish about my friend).

A third list, for commercial writers, might include target markets or a range of pay you want to be earning (for when you can negotiate contracts).

See how defining your writing life makes all of this easier? I can start a page for each of my projects and put these lists together in a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, et voila! I’ve got what looks suspiciously like a plan!

Statement of your writer’s mission
Once you’ve got this sort of boilerplate info worked out on paper, you need to look at the whole shebang and craft from it a mission statement.

Ugh, I hear you grunt from your end of the modem.

I know, they can be laborious, but only if you want them to be. It’s YOUR mission statement, after all. The point is to clarify for yourself what your writing life will be about in the coming year.

Put together a one-sentence definition of what you would be happy to accomplish this year. Mine is fairly simple: “2009 Mission Statement: To complete the book-length projects I’ve already started and to return to feature journalism and food writing seriously.”

Contingency planning
But you might point out, “The best laid plans ‘o mice and men…”

I understand completely how plans can fail when circumstances change. Last year my writing life took a dive when a loved one was diagnosed with, and died later of, lung cancer. I’ve also been a serious writer ever since my children were born. Talk about life lived on contingency plans!

You can account for sudden changes in plans with a simple statement of what projects you would prioritize if you have multiple ones on the docket OR what you would prioritize if you broke your one big project into smaller projects. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all, and neither are book manuscripts or even great articles or poems written overnight.

Brown paper writing life tied up with string
Finally, take all this data you’ve collected and put it into something appealing and accessible. Maybe you’re a graphic design whiz: make a poster to hang by your writing chair. Perhaps you have a fabulous hand-decorated binder you’d like to keep it in. You might be an online calendar addict like I am and start posting goals that are subordinate to your main goals (i.e. “Research chapter five” for the how-to book) in your calendar.

Whatever you do, allow yourself a way to check things off a list so that you can savor the moments when you make progress. This checklist will also help you maintain your focus when things take an unpredictable turn. Who doesn’t need reminders, besides?

More help
Michelle at Juiced on Writing recently posted excellent starter advice on crafting a business plan for writers. Her background in corporate work gives the components of her writer’s business plan a bit of a serious edge to them, but no matter. What she’s demonstrating is what I’m here to convey as well: you can make a plan out of a vision, and with a plan, you can achieve your vision.

However you compose your plan should be as individual as you are, to be sure. The point is to visualize your way into the writing life you want, one day, month, or year at a time.

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Responses

  1. Boy! What a plan, Tamara! It makes a great deal of sense to take the randomness out of the actual writing. As one who starts much and finishes little, I’m going to follow your plan this year.

    Only question come to mind: What about spontaneous writing? Will there be time for those short pieces that ambush you and nag at you until you turn away from your schedule and toward them?

  2. While I admire the specificity of Tamara’s plan, I don’t believe I could follow it with any degree of faithfulness My plan is simpler:

    On Monday, open rejection letters, scowl, note them in my log, then chuck them, unless there’s an encouraging note or a particularly egregious example of editorial arrogance. The former goes on my bulletin board, the latter in some anonymous post on cruel editors.

    It’s just that I can’t for the life of me put “data” and writing into the same box.

    Throughout the week, I make a folder for each new project as it comes to me, as soon as I know what it is. If the idea comes without a form or genre attached, I keep my notes on it in the “day book” notebook until I know.

    I schedule time on my calendar for each outstanding project each week.

    And, if something spontaneous nags at me, as Judy suggests, I chuck the plan and write till I run dry.

    I send out work on Friday mornings, then go to the beach or shopping or to First Friday Art Walk.

    However, I must make a confession in a bow to Tamara’s business-oriented approach: Each year I do set one or two general goals. This year, it’s finish a draft of the novel suitable for agent-shopping, and get more short fiction into print.

  3. RE: spontaneous writing

    That’s a very good question. For those who keep journals, that’s the perfect place for capturing spontaneous ideas.

    If you don’t keep journals (I’m not a journaler, myself), then you need to find a way to capture the words without it derailing your big picture.

    For instance: if, while in the shower, a poem builds itself in my head, I’ll jot down what I have as soon as I’ve dried off, then I’ll work on it outside my scheduled time. These are moments worth skipping TV later that night for, I think.

    I enjoy spontaneous writing, but I’m also someone who’s challenge is not writer’s block, but too many ideas and not enough time. If I were to forego everything for a spontaneous moment, I’d have nothing but starts, with zero work completed.

    However, if your well runs dry for long periods between spontaneous fertility, then I’d not worry too much about that. The dry spaces between periods of spontaneity can be your revision and structured writing time. Only you know what’s best for your process.

    The challenge with spontaneous writing (for me, anyway) is that it becomes far more appealing to work on than the same old project I’ve been working on for x months. Discipline requires one to prioritize, for that’s the ultimate secret to finishing projects.

    Allowing too much spontaneous writing to take over the time you’ve allowed for other projects can be a little like eating junk food while trying to lose weight. It may be briefly satisfying, but ultimately, it still keeps you that much further from your original goal.

    Thanks for the comments!


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