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Issue 85

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In this issue ~~

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A Working Writer: An Interview with Steve Sears

Steve Sears is a long-time subscriber to "Living the Creative Life."  I was excited to learn that Steve had transitioned into a professional writing career, and I asked him to share his strategies and insights with his fellow Creative Lifers.

SHARON GOOD:  Steve, I'd like to start by getting the arc of what kind of work you were doing before and how you transitioned into writing.

STEVE SEARS :  I had been a computer operator for 19 years. It's a full-time profession; I work 39 hours a week, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  I've never worked more than four days a week in the past 17 years, so I was always afforded extra time to pursue other interests or a part-time profession. But I never really kicked the writing life into gear until my heart attack nine years ago. 

SG: Had you started writing before that? 

SS:  I always did write.  I wrote for my high school paper.  I submitted some poems to magazines. But I was very sporadic with it. I was raising a family – my daughter is 15 now.  I always considered my days off my days off, and I didn't want to be chained to a desk writing poems. 

But I knew that I always had it in me to do something. Prior to the heart attack, I sat back and said, What would really make me happy?  And I thought I should write more often, maybe something other than poetry.  And then the heart attack happened. When I came out of it, I said to myself, Let me try and do something with my writing.  During my three months of disability, I was able to contribute to the local weekly newspaper op ed columns.  I was paid nothing, but I didn't care, because I loved doing it so much.

I also got my first paid job as a writer, doing book reviews for a national poetry journal. It didn't net me much in the way of payment, but it got my name in a national magazine, and it gave me a taste of the life outside my job.  It was exciting – I was interviewing the people who had written the poetry books that I was reviewing.  And with the op ed pieces, I had creative license to state my views on things. It was a very exciting time for me.

SG: So, initially, you just tried to get published as much as possible to get your work out there.  How did you land that first job reviewing poetry?

SS:  I had submitted some poems to the Candlelight Poetry Journal. In starting this journal, this gentleman was looking for book reviewers. I told him I had done a few reviews for a writers' group. Wondrously enough, he loved what I wrote, and he started publishing them and paying me.

So, at that particular time, I was doing the op eds for the local paper, the book reviews for the Candlelight Poetry Journal, and some stuff for the writers' group. Unfortunately, that momentum died when I had to return back to a regular job.  It wasn't the job.  It was my lack of happiness returning to what was necessary at that time in my life because I was raising a family.

SG:  So, it was difficult to find time to write and work and raise your family?

SS:  It's not so much that it was difficult to find the time.  The fact of the matter is, I began to procrastinate. The full-time job was only three days a week, but it disheartened me enough to where I curtailed my writing activity, even though I did have projects.

SG:  What turned that around for you?

SS:  Saying to myself, The only way out is up.  The company that I was working for was losing clients, and it looked as though we were all going to lose our jobs. I said to myself, If I'm going to be out of a job, I want to be prepared either with my own business or to step into a writing job. 

I started writing for a local monthly called "Life and Leisure," out of Upper Montclair, New Jersey.  Originally, I started writing an opinion column.  Then he said, "We're going to start writing ad pages."  I said, "You know what? Toss ad pages at me.  Toss everything at me." He said, "Well, I have a local chiropractor who needs articles ghostwritten, and I have a writer currently doing that, but he's always late with his articles and he doesn't work like you."  I said, "Throw that at me, too."

SG:  So, there was a good work ethic there that was helpful in getting you work.

SS: Yes, and to his credit, he threw everything at me. It gave me some valuable experience. I also hooked up with two writing mentors who also gave me experience.

Then, around the summer of 2004, I decided, now is the time to step outside my comfort zone and get my stuff out there.  I started SGS Write and the website. I was writing for "Life and Leisure,"  contributing all sorts of things. Then, I hooked up with a regional magazine called "Blue Ridge Country."

I visit North Carolina every year, so I subscribed to the magazine. One of the articles was about a writer who traveled country roads in the mountainous area of Virginia and went to Civil War spots, visited country delis, focused on the music they have down there. I called the magazine and left a voice mail saying, "That's a wonderful article."

Ironically enough, the article I complimented was the editor's article. She called me and said, "I'd like to have you freelance for me sometime."  I said, "I'm down in North Carolina every year.  I'll be glad to contribute something.  What do you need?"

She said, "How about some dining and travel?"  I said, "That's right up my alley. That's what I've written for 'Life and Leisure' newspaper. What you want, you got." And I contributed to her magazine. At that time, my portfolio wasn't huge.  So then, I had something regional, something local regularly.

SG:  So, it sounds like you're doing lifestyle pieces now.

SS: For magazines, yes.  I do a variety of things.  Just last night, I turned in my latest article about Spring Lake for "M.A.R. Magazine" out of Red Bank.  I actually went to them last November to discuss how to better market their magazine in northern New Jersey.  I thought so much of it, I wanted to help them out. 

The first question the publisher asked me is, "What do you write?"  I said, "Well, I'm currently writing for a monthly in Montclair, and I write for a regional out of Virginia." Then, we started talking about New Jersey, and she said, "I'm having a brainstorm here.  One of the things that people complained about with our first issue was, we didn't have enough cultural stuff or enough New Jersey information.  I want you to be my New Jersey writer." And I just about fell off the couch, especially when she mentioned the payment that I would get per piece.  And I said, "You got it!" 

And that started a slew of activity, where I started writing for a lot of different magazines throughout the state. Then I said, You know what?  Now that I'm doing this national and regional stuff, let me see if I can get some projects on the corporate end. The biggie was "Entrepreneur" magazine. I wrote up a public relations firm out of Red Bank.  It was only a small piece of 150 words, but it was huge exposure.

SG:  At this point, are you doing a lot of pitching, or are people finding you from the work you've already done?

SS:  Both.  I get a lot of return work from magazines that I've worked with before, and I do a lot of pitching.  I have a writing mentor who said, "You're never going to make a living in this business as a writer if you continue working for magazines." He was suggesting that I push more the corporate work.

Is the money the most important thing to me right now?  No. There are corporations out there that will pay $100, $125 an hour, and I'm trying to hook up with them. But this magazine stuff is exciting for me. I've seen my byline.  I've met interesting people that I never would have met.  I've learned stories that I never would have learned.  I've taken my family on trips. Money is important, but fun is, too.  I currently have the safety net of a full-time job.  Am I working to get away from there?  Sure I am.  But right now, I want to have fun.

SG:  It sounds like you're taking your career up another notch to a higher level.

SS:   This is stepping stone stuff. This is for myself and Lucille, my wife, because we're in this together. We're learning.  I've had my successes and I've had my failures, and I've learned from every one.  And in a sense, too, Stefanie, my 15-year-old daughter, is learning, too. I want to build something that she can step into if she so chooses.

SG:  You've talked about your support system.  You mentioned your mentors, and you mentioned your wife, Lucille.

SS:   I have a few writing mentors who offer me different things – these people are successful. A lot of it I accept; a lot of it I don't. 

SG:  Are these formal mentoring relationships that you have or just people that you've connected with?

SS:  Coaching relationships, which I've paid for. They've been very helpful, but I also realize that what they tell me isn't worth a hill of beans unless I act on what they say that I think may be beneficial. Having Lucille here encourages me not to slack off and procrastinate, because we're doing it together now. There's power in numbers. What she brings to the table is phone etiquette, and she's good clerical-wise.  All of this is important.

SG:  So, you're really treating this as a business and being professional about it, but balancing that with doing jobs you enjoy.

SS:  That is correct.  I got off the phone today with a young woman who had some health issues that turned into financial issues. I care about the work I'm doing for her, and we're going to mutually agree on what is affordable for her.

SG:  It sounds like you've found a really good balance, that you have a passion for doing the work, and you want to make money at it. You want to be professional, and you want take into consideration people's needs and build relationships.

SS:  I will get nowhere doing none of the above.  It's all about building relationships, it's all about being professional. It's all about being firm when I have to be, but it's also about being caring when I have to be.  I promised myself when I started this business that number one, I would take responsibility for everything that went into it, and number two, I would operate it with integrity and be honest.  And I do.

SG:  How did you learn about the business part of this?  Did you find forms?  Did you make them up yourself?

SS:  I never operated from a contract.  The only written thing that I operated on was from emails to people, until I got some advice from Chris Morrow, who is a professional freelancer on the west coast. I read an article by her regarding fee agreements.  She said, "If you have a fee agreement, you and the client feel comfortable going in. You work honestly." 

And "fee agreement" sounds better than "contract." So, I developed my own fee agreement, which is basic stuff – the number of hours, the estimate, what's to be done, my name and the client's name. It's in writing, and it protects both myself and the client. It's one of the things that makes me more of a professional, including the website, the business cards, any sales letters I send out.  The business is two parts: it's marketing and it's doing the work.

SG:  So, you need to be a businessperson as well as an artist.  Steve, you said you were looking eventually to being a full-time writer.  Do you have a game plan?

SS:  This past year, one of the things I did was to write out goals, and yes, I have mapped out a game plan.

SG:  Are you thinking in terms of eventually transitioning to doing the computer work part-time and then phasing it out?

SS:  Yes.  Right now, I'm actually enjoying doing the computer work for 39 hours a week and doing this four days a week. I'm not ready to go part-time there until I establish the writing a little bit more.

SG:  Do you have a projection of how long you expect that to take based on your current results?

SS:  I'm taking it very, very slowly.  I'm looking at maybe five years down the road.

SG:  You've got a family, so you're being sensible about it and very practical.

SS:  My daughter goes to a very expensive private academy.  She's doing so well there, I'm not going to pull her out.  And I still have the mortgage on the house.  And yes, every positive move that I make in the writing business has me slowly but surely traversing the roads away from the computer job.  Right now, I'm paying off my debts, and I'm saving my money, trying to build a cash reserve on the side.

SG:  It doesn't sound like you're suffering though.  You're enjoying the computer job, you're enjoying the writing, and you have goals for the future.

SS: The only con is, I lose my weekend. My daughter is taking part in something on Sunday, I'm going to get there late. I can't go to church. Does it bother me?  Sometimes yes, there are certain things I miss.

But a lot of my networking takes place on weeknights, where I don't have to worry about going to a job the next day.  I've been able to meet with people while they're at their desks instead of waiting until after hours. This is the perfect schedule to build this business.

SG:  That's great.

SS:  Somebody said it perfectly – the planets have aligned for me.  My boss is very understanding.  My wife was having issues at the office where she worked.  I said, Come home and help me build the business.  Next day, my boss offered me the three-day shift.

Sharon, it's win-win. Do I have negative moments?  Yes.  Do I have my despairs and my disappointments?  Yes.  But for the most part, things have worked out for me.

SG:  It's exciting to hear. You really deserve the success. You've really put yourself out there, and it's really starting to come back for you.

SS:  It's been a ball.  I love constructing with words.  I love being contacted by somebody saying, "I need a press release for this event.  Can you do it?"  I love magazine editors saying, "We want you to go here, interview these people, and take your family," and coming home and doing the assignment.  It is the best life.  And my wife and daughter see it, too.  I'm able to take them, and they're doing things that they would never be able to do until I was financially comfortable with this.

SG:  So, there are some non-financial benefits that you're getting.

SS:  There are huge non-financial benefits.  I can go to a Border's near my job and open up a New Jersey magazine and see my byline in there.  Right smack on the magazine shelf.  I can sit down and have a cinnamon bun with a cup of coffee and read my article.

And you know what's even better?  The confidence level. I can pick up a magazine now, look what's written and say, You know what?  I can do that and better, and I've done it.  It is a fantastic life. 

My ultimate with this business is to live comfortably, be healthy, inspire my family, and enjoy it. I'm ahead of where I was a year ago, and in 2006, I'm going to do things I never did in 2005.

SG:  It's like, just keep pushing the envelope. It's about persistence.  It's not about hitting the target every time, but to keep coming back. Steve, if somebody came to you and they wanted to do what you've accomplished, what advice would you give them?

SS:  Just do it.  Because if you remain in your comfort zone and say, "Someday I'm going to do it," you're not going to do it.  If you want to be a magazine writer, decide what you want to write. Learn about the querying process. Read a lot of magazines. Compliment editors about the magazine. Say, "You've got a bang-up magazine here, and I can contribute to it, and this is what I've done."

Step out of your comfort zone and do it.  Don't be afraid to put your written word in front of an editor's eyes and on a page.  I'm telling you, it's worthwhile.  People would love to read what you've written.

SG:  So, what do you see in your future?

SS:  I'm not where I want to be, but it's the journey.  I'm having a ball right now.  Is it monetarily satisfying?  For what I've done, I think it is. I've done things this year that I've never, ever done before.

SG:  And there's so much more to come!  Steve, thank you for sharing your journey with us.  I look forward to hearing about more of your successes!

~ ~ ~

To learn more about Steve Sears, visit his website at www.SGSWrite.com.

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Action Challenge

Have you been putting off starting your creative career? What are 3 steps you could take this month to get it going?

 

Wise Words

"What I find is that I can write and do other things. When the creative urge seizes one – at least, such is my experience – one becomes creative in all directions at once."

~ Henry Miller

"A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit."

~ Richard Bach

"Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else."

~ Gloria Steinem

"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."

~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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Bookshelf

(click on the book graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)

Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles . . . Sheree Bykofsky & Jennifer Basye Sander

How to Write Articles for Newspapers and Magazines . . .  Dawn B. Sova

The Successful Writer's Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles . . . Eva Shaw, PhD

Writer's Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing . . .  Michelle Ruberg (Editor)

Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer . . . Moira Anderson Allen

You Can Write for Magazines . . . Greg Daugherty

How to Become a Fulltime Freelance Writer: A Practical Guide to Setting Up a Successful Writing Business at Home . . . Michael A. Banks

The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business, for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels . . . Timothy Harper (Editor)

2014 Writers Market

Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media
(This is expensive – find it at the library!)

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© 2006 Sharon Good. All rights reserved.

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