Of Dough and Deadlines

The universe does have a strong sense of irony. Of this I am sure. Just as I hit a slump, overwhelmed by the to-do list, the backlog from December, the seemingly endless seduction-panic cycle of organizing that attack plan to get out from under... I get an email from a fellow writer.

Her sister is in Boston and considering food writing as a career after graduation. Would I be willing to meet her for coffee and discuss?

Julia if you're reading this now, the first thing most any of us will tell you is "don't quit your day job." In my case, I'd already lost that to a pink slip. In your case, you haven't gotten one yet. But the point is this: it is exceedingly difficult to survive on this thing called writing. I've done plenty of consulting to career-changers and really, who's had more experience than I? So I'm always delighted to meet new people and share what I've learned and hopefully help them start off a little further along than I was when I started.

Some folks do, of course make their living as a writer. Precious few. Here are some things for you to consider.

A good starting point is Dianne Jacob's Will Write for Food (please click here or on the image to buy from my Powell's Bookshelf.) My dog-eared copy sits on my desk at all times. I noted today that new graduates like Julia may not even recognize that the F O O D on the book cover are typewriter keys sitting on a dinner plate. It's clever but it also shows you how quickly our field has changed. Who writes on a typewriter? Next edition should be keyboard keys (or maybe that Mac Talk speech recognition thing, Jaden?) Dianne recently started her own blog and is, as I "type," in Mexico presenting on the topic of making a living at the Food Blogger Boot Camp organized by Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen. Jaden, who ironically, will be the first to say she hates to write!

The way that I've seen people make money in this field is to develop expertise and that people will pay for, just as Jaden, Dianne and others have done. So many conferences and panels discuss "whether" you can make money by food blogging, only a few address "how." The bottom line is that the pressure for good content to be given up for free ("for exposure") is only getting worse. Writing online is, by and large, not where one can make a living. You can build a platform, a following there. You can hone your skills there. But pay the mortgage? Hardly. I am eager to hear what the boot camp teaches. Maybe there will be a download those of us who couldn't go to Mexico can buy?

The successful writers I've met have combined old world publishing and new world marketing savvy to cobble together a living. They are relentless. They have developed a huge, varied skill set. They know how to market themselves and are willing and able to do so all the time. Jaden is a perfect example, she writes (she uses speech recognition gear, which is why her blog feels so conversational), she photographs, she got her first book published without even engaging an agent and shot most all of the photography herself. She's a regular on her local TV station, doing food and cooking segments.

Her story is quite inspiring and I get exhausted contemplating how I could accomplish in a week what she does in a day. And there it is. The hairy truth. This is hard.

Of Dough and Deadlines

Making dough from writing. Baking, while on deadline. It's not either or, I'm literally developing a recipe (today for biscotti) while finishing edits to the piece it will accompany. I'm also contemplating the next bread I'll bake for a book review and post. I'm learning how to be a better baker, surely some of my readers would benefit from what I'm learning. (And thanks to Bruce of The Bread List for this nifty and inspiring title, check out his excellent bread bakers' blog!)

I have three leads, strike that, four to follow up on, and an exciting pitch to a publication that I would die to get into. Everything is important AND urgent. The old time management gurus used to say it was either one or the other. I don't really think they have an answer for the realities of how this field works, today. The balance between doing and writing about doing; and pitching about the writing and the doing, it's not an easy beast to tame. I battle daily.

I don't find that scheduling things works that well. "I will concentrate only on pitches on Mon, Wed, Fri." Sounds good until you get a call on Tues with a hot opportunity. The maintenance of a blog and website takes time, every day. It's also often unpredictable. The maintenance of social networking streams (which is partly very important network and platform building, partly a break to socialize at the virtual water cooler) takes time, every day. Keeping up with all the blogs in your feed reader, takes time, every day. I let that one slide and what happened? Someone went and had a baby. In November. That's how behind I am on reading HIS blog, didn't even know he was expecting.

Keeping abreast of the hot topics will help prioritize what you pitch. Better not pitch something that magazine or its competitor JUST published. Conversely, if three of the top bloggers in your field are writing about a topic you want to pitch to a magazine, it may help you make the argument that the public is interested in that topic now.

A few truths I've discovered

1. You must begin with a healthy amount of intellectual curiosity.

People often ask me "where do you get all your ideas to write about?" If that's the question you're asking, you'd better consider other career options. It's never once been my issue, finding things to write about. You must have a curious mind to do this work. I believe that it's part of the baseline. Without it, you will be sunk.

2. You must be relentless.

If you stop pitching and networking and building those relationships, your pipeline will disappear and it's tough to rebuild. Forget about vacations. You will not be discovered quietly writing your own little blog, alone over there in the corner, no matter how brilliant you may be. Pitch or die.

3. You must be able to pick yourself up, even when it seems ridiculously impossible.

It helps a lot if you have an understanding spouse. A good friend. A circle of writers for support. If you have all of the above, you will be in a better position to succeed. I have all of the above and am curious and relentless and still it's difficult. There will be droughts, if not of ideas, of inspiration. Of motivation. Find a way to get through it.

Resources are there, good writers, good networkers, some great sites and folks who willingly share information and learning. Find what you can offer, accept the help that's there, don't forget to say "thanks" as well as "please."

4. You must find a way to maintain discipline.

If not an old school, daily organizer type schedule, you have to find a way to maintain all the things that you will need to maintain if you are to succeed as an independent writer. Something's wrong with your computer or networking? You cannot call the IT department. That's you. Don't feel like reading the journals, magazines, blogs in your field? Too bad. And though writers have for years relied on muses, I find that they can be unreliable. The frequency of your inspiration will be greatly enhanced by discipline. I know, it's not very sexy but there you have it.

5. You must be thick-skinned.

Rejection is part of the territory. If you're not comfortable with it, you will pitch less. Which is the same as walking away from water in a desert. What can you learn from rejections? This is true in pitching articles, in pitching books. If you can't learn from rejections, you're missing a big opportunity. Listen carefully to what they may have to offer you. Use it to get better.

6. You must be willing to learn.

Everyone says "of course I am" but this really means taking criticism, not just the fun parts. Working with an editor who may be unreasonable (a "PITA" is how one writing guru describes them: Pain In The Ass) is hard. It may also be helpful. Do they have a good point about your writing? Maybe they're being completely reasonable and it's still hard to hear. Either way, get used to it. If you're going to get better it won't happen without being open to learning, sometimes the hard way. I'm lucky to have found a great editor at Nourish Network and I'm turning in decent work and learning lots, too.

Learning is not limited to the stuff you want to learn about, either. HTML, photo editing and more are the building blocks. Without learning a broad set of editing skills you will be trying to drive a car without wheels.

7. You must really love to write, to read, and to edit.

Yes, to edit. Most of us don't. We like to think we are so brilliant the written word will flow from our fingertips in perfect form. Nu-unh. Doesn't work like that. See number 6 above. And number 5. And number 4. (For transparency's sake, and Julie's edification: I have been thinking about this piece for a couple of days. The inspiration that catalyzed the thinking struck today, though I outlined last night before bed. I've edited this four or five seven or eight times already, changed some coding and will likely find errors or things to smooth out tomorrow when I read it again.)

Really if you go all the way back through this list, I would say any success I've had comes from the privilege I enjoy to pursue a career that feeds my many interests. While I work at getting better at the mechanics, the science, of crafting the career; I also enjoy the art of writing.

So, the next bread baking will wait. Today I prioritize the the dough, the edits, the pitches, and the deadlines. Tomorrow I'll take another crack at that to do list...


If you enjoy bread baking here's a little slideshow of my reintroduction to it: