January 2013

Recently I was asked by a writer friend, “How long do I have to keep writing for free?” I told her, “That’s up to you.” I guess that wasn’t the answer she was expecting, because she gave me quite a surprised look. Maybe you’ve got that same look on your face right now! So, let me explain…

Many people in the writing/publishing business (myself included) will tell you to accept pro bono jobs when you’re starting out and trying to get yourself on the map as a legitimate writer. I still agree this is a good idea. It’s the same principle as a new business in town giving away samples of their products or services for a limited time so their prospective market will take a chance and experience them.

There’s nothing wrong for a writer to offer to do an article for free–perhaps in exchange for a link to his website and a bio. Or, to give away some copywriting expertise to a local business in order to gain exposure and build a resume. Not only is it not wrong; it’s smart business. But at some point, you need to draw the line and start collecting money for your work. So, when do you know when to start saying no?

Here are a few scenarios when you should cross over that line:

  • When you’ve already done free work for a “customer” and they want you to continue working for free. I will usually give the same customer two freebies, depending on the nature of the job. If it’s extremely time consuming, or if it didn’t seem to produce much exposure for my work, then I will only give away one job. But, after working for someone twice for free, they need to start paying!

The exceptions to this are if you’re working for an organization you care about and just want to help them promote themselves, or if the company is offering you a consistent gig that will not consume too much of your time. I have worked for free writing a monthly article for a nonprofit but only because it didn’t take very long for me to write. I was able to build my business alongside this free job, and all the while I was accumulating writing credits.

The problem with continuing to give away your work for free to the same customer is that the longer you do it, the harder it becomes to tell that customer they need to start paying. (This is similar to the problem with ideologies like Socialism, but that’s for another blog.) But, the truth is, if they liked your work enough to ask you to do something else for them, then they should pay for it. And, deep down they know this; and more often than not, they are waiting for you to call them on it. Chances are, they won’t say anything if you don’t.

So…how do you transition a client from nonpaying to paying?

One thing I’ve done in the past is to set up an escalating fee scale with my pro-bono customer. After I did my first freebie and they decided they liked my work enough to ask me to write for them again, I proposed a payment scale that started out at 50% of what I would normally charge for that particular job. The pay increased 10% every time I did a job, until we reached my full pay rate. So it took 6 jobs for me to reach my full pay rate, but at least I was making money, and we were moving in the right direction! And, they agreed that as long as they were happy with the work, it was worth it for them.

Another way to handle moving from a nonpaying to a paying customer is to negotiate a contract (make sure it’s written and signed) stipulating that you will do 2 or 3 freebies, but then you get paid at a certain rate for 2 or 3 more jobs (or whatever terms you can agree on).

  • When you already have several writing credits to your name. This is the case with the writer friend of mine whom I mentioned in my opening paragraph. She’s been published in magazines and online a few times now (all for free), but continues to accept more nonpaying jobs.

Once you have published work, especially in print media, future publishers really should not be asking you to write for free. There will always be nonpaying markets–both in print and online–but you will know going into a job whether it pays or not. Once I had a few published pieces, I no longer submitted my work to nonpaying markets. Now again, there are reasons why you might:

–It’s a market you really want to break into, because you know it could lead to other opportunities or because it will give you a chance to do something out of your niche. When I first started writing for kids, I took a couple nonpaying jobs because it was new for me. I wanted a chance to prove myself as a children’s writer, so even though I already had writing credits, I did some children’s work for free to gain exposure in that market.

–It will give you an opportunity to promote yourself or your work by offering bios, website links, or book promotions. In the past, I have traded the chance to get paid for an article with the opportunity to promote my book and my website because that was more important to me at that time.  Many magazine markets are willing to do this if you have an article that will fit the theme of their magazine.

Once you have published credits and have experience to put on your resume, limit your search to paying markets (unless you have a good reason not to, as mentioned above), and send those publishers clips of your work and your resume when you submit your query letter or manuscript. If an opportunity comes to you where the business owner/publisher does not want to pay for your services, you should send them clips of the published work you’ve already done, along with a rate sheet for the type of services they’re asking for. That should give them the hint that you don’t work for free. If it doesn’t, then it will be up to you to tell them or…take yet another nonpaying job.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will continue the discussion on when you should say no to nonpaying jobs.

Sorry, but this post has nothing to do with singing! The pitch I’m referring to is that one shot at selling your incredible article idea or that novel you’ve been working on for the past two years…and how you better be ready to deliver it because you never know when you’re going to get your chance.

By quick definition, a pitch is simply a brief summary of your writing idea, along with why you think it’s such a great idea (if you’re pitching to a specific publisher or agent, you’d include why it’s a great idea for their publishing house or agency, in particular).

Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. The hardest part about a powerful pitch is that it must be completely concise–that is, both complete AND concise. A typical pitch should be written with the intent of being deliverable in 15-30 seconds. Another term for this in the business world is the elevator pitch. This term holds the idea that if you’re lucky enough to find yourself on an elevator with that prospective client you’ve been dying to get an appointment with, what would you say to him or her from the time it takes to get from the second floor to the tenth to get that person interested in hearing more?

Now, pretend you’re at a writers’ conference or workshop, or you’re at a party and discover there is a literary agent there who is actively looking for new talent. Quick–what do you say? You better have it planned out before you bump into her at the punch bowl.

A pitch is also included in your query letter, whether it’s for an article or a book idea. But once you get it down on paper, memorize it and make it a part of you, so you’re never caught off-guard without it. It won’t make a good impression if that agent at the party asks what you do and you’re not able to concisely tell him about the breakout novel you’re working on.

To perfect your pitch, think of it as the blurb that gets written on the back of your book; or for an article, those two or three lines that will hook the magazine editor into having to read more. You’ll need to think like a copywriter and focus on selling, not just telling, about your story.

First, summarize your topic or story as briefly as possible. For novels, mention the main characters and enough about them to create an interest in them. Then choose one unique or exciting element of your topic or story to mention (this may be the angle or POV you’ve chosen). Finally, tell why your article or book will be different than the others already on the market and why you are the perfect person—the only person—to write it.

Ideally, this should all be accomplished in one paragraph of a query letter or within 30 seconds of a monologue.

Read over what you’ve written. Cut out any unnecessary words, making your writing as tight as possible, and eliminate all passive wording. Make sure you’ve used strong, concise, and active verbs.

Now, read it again. Can you sense excitement when you read it, or is it just facts on a page? If the latter, keep revising until your passion for your subject comes through loud and clear. Trust me…if your readers can’t sense your excitement about your project, they won’t be very excited either.

Once you have it exactly as you want it, write it on an index card and take it with you wherever you go. Practice saying it with enthusiasm and with a tone that reflects your subject. Is it a children’s story? Your tone should be bubbly and light. Is it a mystery? Add a little suspense to your delivery. And by all means…don’t give away your ending!

Once you get your delivery polished, practice it on a friend. Do some role playing, and have the other person ask you questions about your work. View this process like you would a job interview, because in many ways, it is. This process will take a little time, so be sure to start practicing well ahead of any writers’ conferences or parties you plan on attending!

Happy New Year, and welcome to 2013!

The following conference list is by no means inclusive, but it’s a good start if you’re looking for a conference or two to attend this year. The conferences are listed chronologically, with a separate section at the bottom for conferences that focus exclusively on those who write for children. You can also find and follow the updates to this list from the Writers’ Resources page on this blog site. So, please check back periodically, as I try to update conferences as I learn about new ones.

There are several listed for January, so if you’re looking for an excuse to go somewhere warm for a while, a writers’ conference might be just the thing! I know the Aloha Writers Conference in Maui sure sounds good right about now!

Almost all conferences now have workshops on using social media, marketing, changes in publishing, and building a platform, so even if a conference you like may not focus on your particular genre, it may be worth attending if you need help in any of the above areas. If you’re attending specifically to meet with agents or editors, then, of course, you’ll want to find a conference with representatives in your genre.

[Note: If known, the following categories of writing represented at a conference are designated as such: F-fiction; NF-general nonfiction categories; CNF-creative nonfiction only; D-devotionals; M-memoirs; C-children’s; P-poetry; YA-young adult. The lists may not be all-inclusive and do not include specific genres, such as mystery writing, chick lit, sci-fi, and so forth.]

2013 Writers’ Conference List

American Christian Writers: several locations and dates during the year, including both conferences and mentoring retreats: F/NF/C/D/YA

CLASS Seminars: several locations and dates during the year; writing and speaking workshops

Jan. 6-12: Blue Flower Arts Winter Writers’ Conference; New Smyrna Beach, FL: F/CNF/P

Jan. 18-21: Aloha Writers Conference; Maui, HI: F/NF/C/YA/M/P (first annual!)

Jan. 18-21: Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway; New Jersey: F/CNF/M/P/YA

Jan. 25-28:  Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference; Concord, MA: poetry conference focused entirely on book-length and chapbook-length manuscripts.

Jan. 26-27: Cocoa Beach Writers’ Conference; Cocoa Beach, FL:

Feb. 14-17: Writing for the Soul Conference; Colorado Springs, CO: Christian writers’ conference sponsored by Jerry Jenkins; F/NF

Feb. 14-17: San Francisco Writers Conference; San Francisco, CA

Fe. 15-18: Southern California Writers Conference; San Diego, CA: F/NF

April 18-20: Las Vegas Writers’ Conference; Las Vegas, NV

May 15-18: Colorado Christian Writers Conference; Estes Park, CO: F/NF/C/YA/D

May 4-5: DFW Writers Conference; Hurst, TX: F/CNF/C/YA

May 19-23: Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference; Ridgecrest Conference Center, NC: F/NF/C/YA/D/P

June 5-8: Write-to-Publish Christian Writers Conference; Wheaton College, IL: F/NF/C/YA/D/P

June 8-13: Santa Barbara Writers Conference; Santa Barbara, CA: F/NF/C/YA/M/P

June 27-29: Jackson Hole Writers Conference; Jackson Hole, WY: F/CNF/YA/P

July 31-Aug. 3: Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference; Philadelphia, PA: F/NF/C/YA/D

Sept. 12-15: American Christian Fiction Writers; Indianapolis, IN:  F/YA

September 20-22: Southern California Writers’ Conference; Los Angeles, CA: F/NF

Oct. 11-12: East Metro Atlanta Christian Writers’ Conference; Atlanta, GA: F/NF/C/YA/D


Children’s Writers Conferences

Feb. 1-3: SCBWI Annual Winter Conference; New York, NY

March 15-16: Write2Ignite!; North Greenville University, Tigerville, SC

June 20-23: Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference; (Book Passages); Corte Madera, CA

August 2-5: SCBWI Annual Summer Conference; Los Angeles, CA

October 4-6: Nancy Sondel’s Pacific Coast Children’s Writers’ Workshop; Santa Cruz, CA