Things are little sleepy here . . .

Dear writers,

You might notice I haven’t posted much here lately. That’s because I’m writing about writing at my sister site, Writer Aid. There’s a lot to read right here and someday I’m going to put it together in a book, but you can find my latest information, inspiration and advice in my weekly posts at http://writeraid.net. See you there.

Sue

Tax refunds and free books

Earlier this week, I blogged about going to the tax preparer and worrying about how I lost money this year. Perhaps I should have worried about providing more legible records. Let’s all get good at spreadsheets, okay? Unless you have beautiful, legible handwriting. Anyway, the tax preparer didn’t care what I did or how much money I made or lost at it. It didn’t matter if I was selling books or horses. It was all numbers to her.

Recording the business expenses was almost as time-consuming as recording my charitable contributions, but she didn’t question or complain or lecture me that I need to show a profit. She did chide me for not taking deductions for my home office–until she saw the gap between income and expenses. “Maybe you don’t need that,” she said.

Perhaps she’s not such a good tax preparer. Perhaps she should have lectured me. Maybe I’ll get a letter from the IRS informing me that I’m being audited, but I never have so far, and if I do, I have the paperwork to prove my case. I’m getting a refund from the federal government and using a chunk of it to pay the state of Oregon. Same as every other year.

This was our last joint return. We’ll see what happens next year when I file as an unmarried writer/musician person.

******************************

Tomorrow is my birthday. To celebrate, I am offering free books. Yes, free. I have a giveaway for my latest book, Shoes Full of Sand, going on at goodreads.com. For tomorrow, March 9, only, I will offer the ebook versions of Shoes Full of Sand and Azorean Dreams for free. And I will give a free copy of any one of my four in-print books to one lucky person who comments on any of my blogs on March 9. I will collect the names and draw the winner on March 10.

The books are Stories Grandma Never Told, Azorean Dreams, Freelancing for Newspapers, and Shoes Full of Sand. Read about them at http://www.suelick.com/Products.html.

The blogs are: Childless by Marriage, Unleashed in Oregon, Portuguese Grandma Stories, Writer Aid, and Everything But Writing.

 

What will the IRS Say?

I’m going to get my taxes done today. I’m nervous. For many years, my husband, who was a professional tax preparer, did my taxes. He didn’t much understand the writing business, but he did understand taxes and the laws for small businesses. When he became incapacitated, I started doing my own taxes with Turbo Tax.

For years, I scrawled my income and expenses them into a book and gave Fred the totals to put on my Schedule C when he started nagging me in January. I knew all about checking the ending mileage on the car and adding up all the money I spent on books, office supplies, Internet fees, travel, etc. I graduated to spread sheets, but the categories remained the same. I have had a separate office for my writing most of my adult life, but I didn’t claim deductions for “office in the home” for two reasons: Number one, it’s a hassle and an audit magnet and number two, most years, I already had a big enough gap between writing income and expenses.

For 2011, the gap is even bigger. I get a little nuts when people assume that I could possibly have functioned normally last year. My husband died. That kind of knocks you into another dimension for a long time. I also self-published a new book and reprinted another, so the numbers look bad. Will the IRS decide my writing is a hobby? I have income and expenses and records going back 40 years to prove that it’s not. Can I just not mention my writing at all this year and forget about the deductions? Nope, I have income that I have to declare. Just not enough to make a profit.

I’m counting on what I have always heard and what was recently affirmed this month in an article in Poets & Writers by Jennifer Wisner Kelly: if you can prove you’re seriously trying to sell your writing, they will accept your claim that your writing is a business, not a hobby.

 As is probably true with all but the most successful writers, the whole writing business is just a small portion of what the IRS will be looking at. I tend to fixate on the writing numbers, but someone else will look at the bigger picture and shrug off the writing numbers as insignificant compared to the income we received from other sources and the money we spent on things like our house and medical expenses. This time, as much as it bruises my ego, I hope that’s the case. I did the best I could in a tough year, one which followed several tough years when Fred was in a nursing home. Now, in 2012, I’m starting over. I don’t really care how that looks to the IRS. I hope they don’t care either

 Stay tuned to find out how it goes.

 

Is it time to buy a new computer? Part 2

Most experts agree that if a computer is more than four years old, it should be replaced. Every component is likely to be too small, too slow and too old. You’ll have trouble finding parts or software that work on it. If you need to install more than two major components or if an upgrade costs more than half the price of a new unit, it is more cost-effective to buy a new computer than to upgrade the one you have.

Desktop Computers are cheaper than they used to be. For under $1,000, you can get a computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, the whole package. But you may not need all that. If your monitor, printer and other peripherals are okay, you only need to buy the central processing unit, the brains of the computer, which will bring the price down. Stick with the same operating system, i.e, MAC or PC, and everything should fit together fine. The new computer will look and act like the old one only better.

Maybe you prefer to go with a laptop. I like a bigger system to use at home, but you can’t argue with the portability of the laptop, and there’s really nothing the desktop models do that they can’t.

Whatever computer you buy, expect to spend a day or two setting up the new equipment, installing programs, organizing your desktop and trying out new features. Planning ahead will make it faster and easier.

First, don’t wait until your old computer dies in the middle of a story, taking your words with it. Schedule the transition for a slow time, perhaps a weekend or holiday or after your editor has accepted the final draft of a big project.

Prepare by backing up all of the files and programs you’re going to need from your current computer onto a flash drive or auxiliary hard drive. Don’t forget to preserve your e-mail addresses and favorite Internet sites.

Make sure you have all the parts you need before you unplug anything on the old system. Will your old keyboard and mouse plug into the new computer, or do you need to buy an adapter? Do you need a new printer cable? Do not assume they will be in the box, and don’t wait until all the stores are closed to discover something is missing.

When you do start unplugging, take the time to label each cable with masking tape or a Post-It note. This simple step will save you considerable grief and confusion.

Allow yourself time to deal with glitches–the mouse doesn’t work!–and to familiarize yourself with the new computer. Even within the same brand, things change, from where the on/off button is located to how things look on the screen. Read the manual, customize the display and organize your files the way you like them, so that when it’s time for your next writing session, you’re ready to think about words instead of computer parts.

It’s hard to give up a computer that has become an old friend, but your investment will soon pay for itself in the burst of enthusiasm inspired by all the new things you can do with your new computer and the confidence that you can trust it to take good care of your precious words.

Final note: Your old computer can and should be recycled. Don’t just throw it away. And make sure all incriminating files are removed.

Is It Time to Buy a New Computer? Part 1

Until recently, your computer was as dependable as Old Faithful. Suddenly, the system locks up for no reason, it’s so slow you have time to go for coffee while your files load, and the ominous “fatal error” message keeps flashing across the screen. Do you need a new computer? Probably.

Perhaps your computer works fine, but editors claim they can’t read your stories, you can’t install the latest programs, and the files that people send to you come out as gibberish. But you just got this computer. Surely you don’t need a new one.

Think again. These days, computers have the shelf life of cottage cheese. By the time you get used to one system, a newer model comes out. Software keeps changing, and so do the storage media on which we save our files. Anyone remember 5 1/4-inch floppy disks? Now CDs are fading away. In two years, your new system is old. In five years, it’s a dinosaur.

Not fair? I agree, but it’s a reality of the writing business.

If all you want to do on your computer is write, it doesn’t matter how old it is. As long as if keeps turning out words, terrific. However, today’s writers need to be able to connect with the outside world by computer. Gone are the days when it didn’t matter what you typed your stories on, as long as the final paper copy looked good.

I can’t remember the last assigned article that I sent by snail mail. Today, everything happens online by e-mail. Stories are pitched, accepted, submitted, edited and proofed on computers. So we have to be up to date.

How do you know when it’s time to replace your computer? When you can’t do what you need or want to do on the computer you have. Or when you can’t concentrate on your writing because you’re afraid your words are about to disappear. You know you have to do something.

Before buying a new computer, consider whether simply upgrading the system you have might do the job. Try cleaning out excess files to free up more memory. Does that help? Would installing a new version of the software you’re using bring you up to date? If so, can your computer run it? Would adding memory or replacing a key component, such as the processor, motherboard or hard drive solve the problem? Can you do something to speed up your Internet connection?

If you can’t answer these questions yourself, ask a computer technician you trust, ideally someone whose job is advice and repairs, NOT computer sales. They may tell you it’s time to bury the old, faithful computer.

Then what? Come back next week for the rest of the story.

 

Copyright Sue Fagalde Lick 2012

Your Computer will Drive You Crazy

Sometimes I wish we were still using manual typewriters. At least I could be sure that what I typed would end up on the page. Sure, I made lots of typos, but I could be pretty confident that my words would never just disappear or that I wouldn’t end up staring at a screen holding my breath and praying that the hourglass would stop spinning and my work would appear. Have you ever clicked on “my documents” and been told that you have no files? I have. Thank God they came back, but what a shock.

Computers can make you nuts. As the owner of an old computer that keeps telling me I don’t have enough memory, I face computer freezes and super slow motion every day. I know, I’m going to buy a new one soon, but I hate to transfer all those files and programs and learn a new system. We’ll talk about new computers in a future post. Meanwhile, what do we do?

1) Back up everything. It doesn’t matter whether you copy your files onto an auxiliary hard drive, a portable flash drive, an online storage system such as www.dropbox.com or space offered by your Internet provider. Just copy your writing and your records somewhere, preferably in a place that will still be accessible if, God forbid, your house gets burglarized, flooded or burns down. While you’re writing, save often, and when you’re finished with a project or done for the day, back it up. It’s surprising how many writers never do this.

2) “Restart” is your friend. When your computer just isn’t working properly, hit Restart. Often, your problems will magically go away. It’s not good to push the power button when the computer is running, but if all else fails and you can’t even get to “restart,” just turn the whole thing off.Take a break while it cools down, then start over.

3) Watch out for viruses and computer junk. You do have an antivirus program, don’t you? Get one today if you don’t. Norton is the most common, but there are others out there that you can download for free. I’m currently running Avast. You can also download programs, such as Spybot, to combat spyware, cookies and such that websites install on your computer without your permission to track your usage. These not only invade your privacy but they use memory and slow down your computer.

There’s so much more to say on this subject, so we’ll come back next time with more. Meanwhile, if you can’t fix it in 15 minutes, turn it over to a professional. Unless you are a trained computer technician, admit that you’re a writer, not a techie and get back to writing on whatever you have, even that old typewriter in the closet. It will save you a lot of stress.

Managing the Mail

When the world finds out that you’re a writer and/or that you’re in business for yourself, you start getting all kinds of mail. I don’t know how so many companies  find out who we are, but they do, just like somehow AARP knows exactly when we’re going to turn 50. Most of what we get in the mail should be pitched directly into the recycle bin without even stopping at your desk.

But there are some good things. For example, as a professional writer, I often receive big discounts on magazine subscriptions. If the magazine is one you want to write for or that might help you with your research, go for it. Keep track of your subscriptions so you don’t get saddled with more than one subscription to the same publication. It happens.

In the olden days, not so long ago, writers corresponded by mail, sending their writing, clips and queries in big envelopes with self-addressed stamped return envelopes tucked inside. They haunted the mailbox, looking for acceptance letters.

That still happens, but not as often. Most rejections and acceptances come by e-mail. I can’t remember the last assigned article that I sent by snail mail, and most publications have an online submission option.  Today, stories are pitched, accepted, submitted, edited and proofed on computers. The only thing that comes by mail is the check, and even that is changing.

Occasionally, you’ll come across a literary journal that still wants paper submissions. If so, revert to old-school tactics. Print out your work on white bond paper, preferably in 12-point black type. Include a cover letter, query, manuscript and/or clips, whatever they’re asking for. Type your own name and address on a business-sized envelope, put a stamp on it, put it all inside a big envelope, and take it to the post office. If you’re mailing your work to another country, leave the envelope open and purchase an International Reply Coupon to include for the response.

If you’re just mailing a couple sheets in a #10 envelope, it’s not difficult to figure out the postage, but for anything else, it has gotten so confusing lately that it’s better to let the postal clerk figure out how much it will cost. (Considering that the price of stamps just went up again, always buy the “Forever” stamps, which are still good when the price changes.)

It’s nice to mail an attractive package. You could go to a print shop and pay to have letterhead and matching envelopes made, but you can do just as well yourself with your computer.  Copy other people’s letterhead formats, right down to the typeface and arrangement of name, address, telephone number, e-mail, etc., use a template in your word-processing program, or  create your own design. Save your letterhead in a file on your hard drive and paste it at the top of every letter. If you move or change your e-mail address, all you have to do is type the new information into your letterhead file. No cost, no waste.

If you want to take this even further, you can print matching envelopes or labels with your name and address in the same typestyle and design. Now we know you’re a pro. You can also buy them inexpensively at vistaprint.com and other online sites.

Set aside time each day to manage the mail. Fifteen minutes is usually enough to toss what you don’t want and respond to the  mail that requires a response. If you usually receive your personal mail at home, you might want to invest in a post office box. It offers a secure place to receive mail and money from your editors and clients,  sounds more professional and offers a measure of protection to keep people you encounter through your writing from knowing where you actually live. Get a box big enough to hold a 9 x 12 envelope, which, with luck, will hold a copy of your published work with a check inside.

Receptionist, secretary, office manager: You’re It

Have you seen that obnoxious TV commercial where this guy named Dave plays all the roles in his business? People keep calling his name. “Dave.”  “Dave!” “Dave?” I honestly don’t know what they’re advertising. I’m so busy muting the sound that I don’t pay attention to the product. However, we writers may sometimes feel a little bit like Dave. At least until we get rich and famous, we play all the roles. We are the boss, the accountant, the secretary, the researcher, the publicist, tech support, and oh yes, the writer.

We answer the phones, manage the mail, file the papers and keep the office fully stocked and running. Over the next few posts, we’ll look at each of these jobs, offering ways to get them done while taking a minimum of time away from your writing.

Let’s talk about the telephone.

I have a love-hate relationship with my telephone. Some days I want to unplug it, but I might miss an editor telling me she loves my story or the source I have been waiting to hear from for a week. I might also miss a family member with an emergency. But if the words are rolling, I definitely don’t want to hear from the dentist reminding me of my appointment, anybody asking for money, an editor requiring a rewrite–or, to be honest, a friend who wants to chat. I just want to write in peace.

As for outgoing calls, well, they make me nervous. Show of hands, how many of us suddenly become shy when it comes to cold-calling a source or an editor about our work? Good. I’m not alone. You keep putting it off until it’s so late you’re about to miss the deadline. You find a hundred other things you need to do before you make that call. You might even pick up the phone, start to dial, then slam the receiver down or slap the cell phone shut. No. Not yet. Maybe later. Sound familiar?

I don’t blame you. I often e-mail instead of calling. But the phone, as they used to say on the TV commercials, is the next best thing to being there. It’s hard to have a dialogue by e-mail, even with the chat function. You can’t hear the tone of their voice, their accent, their emotions, or the dog barking in the background. Most important, you can’t follow up with questions in the natural way of a real conversation.

Besides, an editor or agent who can’t reach you by telephone probably won’t want to work with you.

So, you’ve got to have a phone. But what kind? Today’s phones identify callers, answer when you’re not home, record conversations and remember phone numbers. Cell phones can take pictures and exchange e-mail messages. New telephone features show up every day. But they all cost money. One could easily spend $200 a month on telephone expenses. What do you really need? Let’s look at the options in descending order.

1) A telephone. The actual equipment can be inexpensive, with no special features as long as it makes calls in and out. You could even buy a telephone at a second-hand store for a buck or two. Bonus: The old-fashioned phones still work when the power goes out. Cell phones cost more, but may be cheaper in the long run because they’re not only portable but offer plans where long-distance is almost free. Lots of people are opting to use their cell phone for everything. Where I live, cell phone reception is bad, so I count on the landline, but I’d go all cell if I could.

2) Voicemail, an answering machine or an answering service. Even if you take your phone everywhere you go, you’re bound to miss a call if you’re already on the line or in the shower. If you are trying to impress editors and sources that you’re a real writer, the last thing you need is for them to hear endless ringing. The second worst is a child babbling baby talk or a smart-aleck roommate who likes to answer, “Joe’s Bar.” And check your voicemail to make sure it’s working. If a caller gets a message saying your voicemail box is full, offline, or out of order, they’re likely to hang up and never call back.

3) Caller ID, which shows you the name and telephone number of the person calling. If your phone didn’t come with a Caller ID built in, you can attach a caller ID box. For non-cell phones, the service costs another $5 or so a month, but it’s worth it. You can see who’s calling, allowing you to decide whether or not to answer. If it’s a work call, you can pull your notes out and be ready. In addition, the service keeps a list of callers, including those who didn’t leave a message.

4) A separate line for business calls. Working from home, it is difficult to separate your writing from real life. It’s also hard keeping other family members, especially teenagers, from grabbing the phone every time it rings. If everyone knows “That’s Dad’s business phone,” then Dad can choose whether to answer it or declare that he’s off for the day.

5) A built-in tape recorder. This is a nice feature, especially if you do a lot of telephone interviews, but you can buy a two-dollar connector at Radio Shack to hook your tape recorder to almost any phone for the same result. If you do record a call, tell the person you’re doing it. Most people don’t object if you assure them you’re only doing it for accuracy.

A word about “call waiting.” When the phone beeps with another call, it distracts both parties. Even if you decide to ignore it, the repeated beeping may very well ruin what would have been a fruitful conversation. Most phone companies have a code you can dial to shut off call waiting temporarily. For business calls, use it. Speaking of beeping, keep your cell phone charged, so it doesn’t start beeping in the middle of a call. It might even quit altogether.

At a regular job, someone else would answer your phone and screen your calls, but as a freelancer running your own writing business, you ARE the secretary and receptionist. If you’re making your first impression by telephone, it needs to be a good one. No matter what’s happening when the phone rings, take a breath and answer it professionally. “Hello, this is Sue” works a lot better than a harried, “Yeah?” Let them know who you are and that you’re actually happy to hear from them–just like a real receptionist would do.

Next time: managing the mail.

Copyright 2012 Sue Fagalde Lick

Will They Pay Your Expenses?

In previous posts, we’ve been talking about keeping track of our writing income and expenses and ways to do that.  Now that it’s January, I hope you’ve got a system set up and have started making entries.  So far, my new  spreadsheets are working great. But remember, it doesn’t matter how you keep track, as long as you do it. If you do nothing more than jot your information on a piece of paper and put your receipts in an envelope, you’ll be okay.

Now, if you’re writing or doing a writing-related job on assignment, you may not have to cover all of your expenses yourself. Some publications and writing clients will reimburse you for money you spend doing the work. Typically, they may cover mileage, phone calls, and anything you have to spend, such  as park or museum admissions. In some cases, they might even cover food, lodging or plane tickets.

It’s important to ask upfront what expenses are covered. Get it in writing and find out how they want you to present those expenses to them. Do they want an itemized invoice? Do they have a form? Do they want copies of your receipts?

The worst thing you can do is wait to bring it up until after you have spent the money. I did that early in my career. When I told the editor I had driven hundreds of miles for this assignment and expected to be compensated, she got angry. We never agreed to that, she said. And she was right. Nobody ever said I was going to be reimbursed. So ask about expenses as soon as you get the assignment. If they don’t pay, decide whether your fee is enough to cover not only your writing time but whatever out-of-pocket expenses you incur.  If it’s not, you may decide not to take the assignment or tailor your research to fit the budget. For example, instead of driving hundreds of miles, I probably could have done a lot more of that story by telephone.

Bottom line, never assume you’ll get paid for expenses. Ask, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

 

Get Those Writing Numbers Down

Last week, which was also last year, we talked about the need to keep track of our income and expenses in our writing business. Now it’s a new year, and I hope you have started.

I began my new year a day early by taking an online course on Excel spreadsheets. The program came with my computer, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Like so many things these days, you can find courses in Excel online. It turns out there are quite a few you can do for free. Google “free online excel course” and take your pick. This one took about two hours, moving in easily understandable steps with exercises and quizzes to make sure I was learning what they were trying to teach.

Then I started my new spreadsheets for expenses, income, and my book-selling business. I tried to use one of the pre-fab forms, but it didn’t work. General business forms and programs just don’t include the things that writers need, such as publications, entry fees, and Internet charges. So I had to make a blank form, but I’m happy to report that so far it’s going well. Next year at tax time, I should have an easy-to-read printout of everything I earned and spent on my business.

What did I put down? I went out to research a story on New Year’s Day. Yes, writers work on holidays. I paid for a drink, so I put that in, as well as the mileage. The next day, I renewed my subscription to Poets & Writers magazine. Recorded that, too. And yesterday, I bought stamps. That also counts.

Yesterday, I used the raggedy spreadsheets I created in 2011 to add up my income and expenses for 2011. I wish I’d made more money, but at least I have the numbers in black and white to do my tax return. I can also see where I need to adjust my budget to make my writing business more profitable.

Writers usually are a lot more comfortable with words than with numbers, but only a few minutes a day will keep you on track.

One last thing I just remembered: For our tax returns, it’s important to know how many total miles we drive in a year and how many of those miles are for business. If, like me, you didn’t check the mileage on your car yet, go do it right now.Then get back to writing because if you don’t do that, all these numbers don’t mean anything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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