I was interviewed in “The Limelight,” Suite101.com’s blog, by associate editor Lima Al-Azzeh. Mostly, we talk about managing a long-term writing career, networking, and a little bit about long-distance hiking, which has been the subject of many of my books and articles.
Update: unfortunately, Suite does not keep complete archives and the interview is gone). Spo I’m repositing my answers to the interviewers questions here:
What events in your life have lead to you becoming fully self-employed
Long story short: I had worked in various aspects of publishing for about seven or eight years, then got married to a professor who had a sabbatical coming up. We both had a passion for adventure, so we decided to hike the United States Continental Divide Trail, which runs about 3,000 miles through the Rocky Mountains, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. I already had a literary agent for a novel (which will be, I’m afraid, forever unpublished). She asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on the Continental Divide experience, and was able to get a book deal for Where the Waters Divide. At the time, only a handful — maybe a dozen or two — people had ever done the Continental Divide Trail, so after the book came out, there was a bit of publicity, and offers to write more books and magazine articles came in. I never looked back. Self-employment is great.
As a self-employed professional, how do you go about finding and securing jobs for yourself?
My partner and I are both self-employed, and we call it “sowing seeds.” What we mean by that is that we put ourselves out there: We volunteer, we network, we try new things, we talk about what we do to people we meet, we try to be active in our communities, we respond to reader questions, we teach, we’re active on line and in organizations and associations, we share leads with other writers and editors, and we show up for other writer’s book-signings and talks (the Karma thing). We don’t know which of these efforts will “pay off” — but we know that some of them will. But more to the point, we just do them, because this is who we are, and it’s what we do…. Sometimes you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
An example: in addition to being a writer, I’m also a musician and music teacher. So one night, at a writer’s conference, it was late, people were hanging out at the hotel, and I started playing the piano and showing other writers a few little basic piano tricks.. A year or two later, the agent of one of the writer’s who heard me play was looking for a writer who could handle technical music topics. That contact led to three book deals for me, and three more for my partner, with others being discussed. (And in turn, I was able to introduce fellow Suite writers to that agent, and those contacts led to further book contracts for them.) So you never know what’s going to lead to something. But a lot of writers sit at home, scouring the Internet for fast, easy jobs…. In my opinion, that’s not necessarily where you’ll find the good jobs. A lot of them come through being out in the world.
What advice do you have for others with similar goals?’
1) Diversify. Get as many income streams as possible.
2) Go back to the same well as often as possible, because once you get in rhythm with a market, the work is more efficient. Try to be the writer they automatically think of hiring when the next gig comes up.
3) Don’t take rejection personally. I know it’s hard. But there really isn’t anything person about it, even though it often feels that way. It’s just business. And I think editors are wrong as often as they are right about what they reject. How would you like to be the editor who rejected J.K Rowling? It’s a numbers game. If your work meets the required standard, if you keep sending stuff out, you will get work. Unfortunately, these days, the numbers are tighter than ever and you have to send a lot of proposals out. But books are being published. Magazines are being printed. Why shouldn’t YOUR work be in them?
4) Be sure you have the skills. If you keep getting rejections that mention your grammar — fix it. Look for honest feedback. Face it, everyone thinks they can be a writer, and self-criticism isn’t everyone’s strong point. Take a class, hire an editor or a coach, talk to an editor you’ve worked with about how she sees your work. Criticism is helpful: we all need it, and we can all improve. It’s one of the most exciting things about this work: I am not the writer I was ten or twenty years ago, and I will be different next year. I hope.
5) Have the basics in place: A website, business cards, a blog. (I’m at www.KarenBerger.com)
6) Be sure you understand the markets. Magazines and websites have personalities and styles, and you have to intuitively grasp these, which can be hard because how you, as an outsider, see the magazine is very often very different from how an editor sees it. One thing I’ve found helpful is to go to conferences where editors speak about their magazine, and talk about what they are looking for.
How important is networking in your career?
It’s crucial. Networking with other writers helps in so many ways from technical assistance when your computer freaks out to editor and agent contacts.. I highly recommend joining professional writers associations. Direct contacts from the groups I’m in have resulted in enough work to pay my dues for the rest of my professional life.
People hire people they know and trust. Most of my book contracts have come through personal contacts. I’ve also broken into a lot of major magazines as a result of meeting editors at conferences. Or I’ve met writers at conferences or on press trips who have passed me on to an editor. I’ve just landed a nice little blogging gig courtesy of a fellow writer who I know from a writer’s group.
Always remember: Networking is reciprocal thing. If someone on a board I’m on posts that an editor is looking for a story on, say, Poland, I’ll immediately think of a writer I know who lives in Poland and pass along the contact. I’m just wired that way. And people have done that for me.
But — and here’s the caveat — the other important thing to understand about networking is that it’s all about long-term relationships. So before I send anyone to an editor or an agent, I’m going to have to be sure that it’s a recommendation I can live with…. because I have had editors come back to me and say “You know that writer you sent me for the article on Outer Mongolia…. we weren’t all that thrilled with what she did for us.” So now, I’m careful to make sure anyone I send on seems like someone I’d want to work with, and I make sure the writing quality is what the agent or editor seems to be looking for. Because I want agents and editors to take my recommendations seriously, and i don’t want to waste their time. And vice versa: I have to assume that people are checking me out in exactly the same way when I ask for help. It can be delicate.
What is it about hiking that appeals to you and can you tell us more about the “so-called ‘Triple Crown’”?
As long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about four things: the outdoors, travel and other cultures, music, and writing. Hiking is a wonderful way to experience the world. It slow everything down, makes it much more intense, much more “of the moment.” Traveling on foot puts you right there at ground level: you’re very vulnerable: A hole in your boot or a broken cook stove or an injury, even a minor one, can stop you dead in your tracks, and it can be hard to get help when you are out of cell-phone range. You sometimes depend on “the kindness of strangers,” and that often gives you an entree into introduces you to everyday local people you otherwise wouldn’t meet. Benton Mackaye, the founder of the Appalachian Trail, put it best: He wrote that the point of hiking the Appalachian Trail is to “walk, to see, and to see what you see.”
The “Triple Crown” is an informal name given to the three north-south long-distance hiking trails in the U.S.A.: The Appalachian Trail, which runs about 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine; the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs just short of 2,7000 mile from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington, and the Continental Divide, which runs through the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada. Each is different, but they are all extremely challenging both physically and mentally. Together, they take hikers through some of the most iconic landscapes in America, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Colorado Rockies, and the Cascades. About 100 people have been recognized as having hiked all three of these trails.
What further goals do you have for your career?
This year, I have four major goals: 1) To finish a novel I’ve barely started. 2) To start my own monetizing website on travel, probably in cooperation with other travel writers. 3) to experiment with publishing some e-books and 4) To do some serious practice for piano performance. I also have a couple of book ideas bouncing around with my agent; we’ll see what happens with those.
I’ve also set up a Facebook business page for my writing, focusing on travel, ecotourism, the outdoors, backpacking, and adventure. I’m posting links to new articles there — both by me, and by other writers and public relations sources — as well as little tips and things I’m learning along the way. I promise: No more than a few posts a week, max. Please visit Karen Berger Writer, and click on “like,” and you’ll get the updates.
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