What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
Regarding the craft, learn to be ruthless when editing your own work. Regarding the business, always work a little harder than the next guy.
What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
To present themselves professionally in meetings with prospects or clients and to speak enthusiastically and specifically about their work in casual company. People who communicate well provide an invaluable service, today more than ever. But others aren’t going to be interested in your work unless you act interested in it yourself.
What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
Taking anything personally. Every successful writer has plenty of examples of nasty rejection letters that at some point cut them to the quick. The ones that succeeded fought past these temporary stings; the ones who didn’t were the ones who took those words to heart and internalized them. I’ve said this a thousand times: When you get a rejection, allow yourself a minute or two of anger or sadness or whatever, then do whatever you need to do to move on, whether it’s go for a run or take a baseball bat to a pillow. No writer in history has benefited from wallowing.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
Spiritually speaking, my wife’s support and willingness to continually challenge me. Practically speaking, a backup hard drive or memory stick with lots of memory—because if you aren’t backing up your work, well, you’re just asking for trouble.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m awakened at dawn by one or more of my three kids vaulting themselves onto my bed and usually landing squarely on my groin. Once my wife Stephanie and I have got them dressed, fed and sent off to school/camp, I head down to my office and consult my to-do list for that day, which I always prepare the night before, because I have far too many things going on to expect to remember using just my own brainpower. I’ll work straight through until about 10:30, then break for a nectarine or grapefruit or granola bar, then dive right back in. Around lunchtime I’ll usually go for a run or bike ride because my body’s starting to rebel at having sat in a chair all morning. Part of that run or ride will typically involve getting a foot-long sub for lunch, which I’ll devour as soon as I get back home. If there are errands that need doing, I’ll usually do them around mid-afternoon, when energy typically flags a bit. Then I’ll put in another hour or so until the kids get home, play with them until dinner, and then, after dinner, give them baths, read them books (too many, always) and shepherd them off to dreamland. About half the time I’ll fall asleep mid-book in one of their beds and start trailing off into nonsense, causing them to say, “What does that mean, daddy?” A couple of times a week Stephanie and I will order our own dinner after the kids are in bed—sushi, Thai, falafel, what have you—because that’s often the only true quality time we get with each other. Then, around 9 or 10 pm, I’ll resume working, putting in a few more hours to tie up loose ends, meet deadlines, and prepare the following day’s to-do list. Overall the day is divided between working on current projects, corresponding with editors, capturing new ideas, and doing research.
If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
The business model of publishing is antiquated, resulting in a power balance far too skewed toward one side. It makes no sense that bookstores are at liberty to send back whatever quantity of books they want at the publisher’s—and, indirectly, the author’s—expense. Competition is good, because it brings out the best in people and produces great writing. But if I were running things, bookstores would have to make the same bets everyone else has to make. Guess how much you think a book is going to sell, buy that number of copies, and promote it. Doesn’t seem complicated.
In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?
Things have ramped up in two ways. First, I’ve gone from one child to three, making my life almost immeasurably more busy and involved, so I have to manage my time with incredible efficiency just to stay relatively on top of things. Second, my practice, both on the journalistic side and the corporate side, has expanded considerably, so I need to be more selective about what I can or can’t take on. It’s basically a continuing juggling act, but one I relish.
Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?
Don’t try to impose your personality too strongly at first; let the work speak for you. Your friends may know you as the funny guy in the group, but you don’t need to convey that in your first e-mail to an editor, nor do you need to sound overly scholarly, cheeky, avant-garde, worldly, etc. The work should be able to stand on its own without your getting in the way. Once you’ve established a solid professional relationship, it’s okay to loosen up and reveal more of “you.”
What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?
When my eldest son was an infant, I wrote an essay about standing at his cribside and watching him sleep, which was bought by Today’s Parent. After the issue came out, the editors received a letter from a mom who said she’d had to ask her husband to pull over and stop the car because she was crying so hard while reading the essay. So I consider my biggest publishing accomplishment making someone pull over.
Any final thoughts?
Writing is both a beautiful art and a vitally influential skill, but because it’s an art and not a “business” in the conventional sense of the word, people tend to talk about it timidly. Ten years into my practice I still get people saying to me, “Can you make a living writing?” The answer is yes, and the more we trumpet that answer, the truer and more frequent it will become.
About the Book
For more ways to make money freelancing, check out 102 Ways to Make Money Writing 1,500 Words or Less by. I. J. Schecter.
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