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Robin Hobb's Infrequent and Off Topic Blog

Things I Did Wrong as a Writer

There could be so many things I could put under that heading!  

 

But this blog follows the previous one in talking about starting out to be a writer.  It covers the things I did right from the beginning, the things I did wrong, and the things that I didn't know existed.

 

In my previous blog, I spoke about setting money aside for income tax, both federal and state (if you live in a state that has an income tax.)  What I didn't know in the early days of my career was that I was liable for other taxes.  B&O taxes, also called Business and Operating taxes.  Even after I learned that my state had a B&O tax that I should have been paying for yeras, I didn't think to investigate if my city had one!  And, of course, it did.  

 

Now for the intelligent thing I did.  I went in to the city offices and told them that I hadn't realized I was liable for city B&O taxes, and so I hadn't been paying them.  And because I did that, they helped me fill out the forms for the previous years.  They waived the penalties and greatly reduced the interest.  So.  Yes.  Honesty is the best policy.

 

But you know what else I discovered that day?  I was operating a business in my city.  But I had no business license.  And I was operating it in a rsidential area!

 

Yes.  Being a writer in your basement and earning money is operating a buisness in a residential area.  So, I also had to sign up for a business license.  And I had to apply for a zoning variance.  Pretty silly, I know.  I'd bet that every building on my block had a computer and a printer and wifi in it.  Nonetheless, I had to purchase a zoning variance, and pin the business license to the wall in the basement. 

 

So, a word to the wise is sufficient.  From the very beginning, consider yourself a professional and yes, a businessperson.  It's so much easier to stay out of tax trouble then to try to get out of it!

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As You Intend To Be

The 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' order has given many of us a lot of time to reflect on our pasts, our presents and our futures.

 

One question writers are often asked is, "What advice would you give to a young person who wants to write professionally?"  And over the years, how I responded to that question has varied.

 

But answering it today, I'd give the advice I wish had been given to me.  Not just for writing, but for all of life.  And that would be, "Start today to be the person you intend to be."

 

It sounds obvious, doesn't it?  And almost easy, but it hasn't proven so for me. I wanted to be a professional writer who made a living from selling my writing.  But I didn't initially act like that!

 

I'll start by telling you the things I did right from the beginning.  I was writing a lot of stories for children.  As I finished a story, I paid for a good Xerox copy.  (This was typewriter days!) That went into a folder.  Also in the file folder was a list of markets for the story, from best paying to free.  I also had a page that was a log.  It showed the date I'd sent out a story, the title, the editor and magazine I'd sent it to, and columns for 'reject' or 'sold'.  If it sold, I put down the date and how much.  If it was rejected, I put a tick in the box, and made sure the manuscript looked presentable still.  And if it did, it went back into an envelope that day, along with a Stamped Self-Addressed Envelope, and off it went again.  

 

Now for the money.  Fred and I were both self employed.  Fisherman and Writer.  We used to joke that our income depended on fish and editors, and both of them were unpredictable. So, when Fred got a check for his crew share, or I got a much smaller check for a story, we put 50% into our checking account and 50% into the 'pay the taxes' account.  It wasn't that we were technically at such a high level of taxation.  But our taxes included not just income tax, but self employment tax for each of us, and each of us paying 100% of our social security tax.  By setting aside 50%, we usually had enough to cover taxes.  If there was any 'extra' left over, we used it to tide us over until the next herring season or book advance.  And after a number of years of urging by knowledgeable people, we began to put the 'extra' into Individual Retirement Accounts.  This was a good move, as neither of us had employers offering a 401K or a pension. 

 

I will mention that we did the 50% thing from the very beginning.  Even when my writing income was in the hundreds per year rather than the thousands.  Begin as you mean to go on. 

 

Things changed when I went from short works to novels.  Unfortunately, it took several years for me to realize I needed better record keeping!  The submission log and the 'save the money' stuff still worked.  But with a longer work, there were more characters to keep track of, let alone the geography! And the passing of time!

 

I'm not talking about world building here.  I will mention briefly: coinage or money value, major religions, calendar with seasonal names and year dates, names of countries and bodies of water, etc.

 

But what I'm discussing here is the writer keeping the story straight.  I soon realized I needed a time line so that all characters would age at the same rate.  And I needed my own glossary.  By this stage of my career, writers had begun to have computers.  My time line remained a hand written document, but it was wonderful to open an extra file on my computer and insert the proper name of a character or a river, alphabetically, with a brief description.  I also found it handy to include when that character first appeared.  Not with a page number or even a chapter, as those always change in the construction of a book, but the incident.  As in, "Joe is met in the tavern shortly before the disastrous river crossing." 

 

With book sales come contracts, and eventually royalty statements, earned and unearned. Now, I was a writer! Just stuff those things in a folder somewhere.  Who can undetstand a royalty statement anyway?  I'm an artist and . . . . and an idiot.  Don't be like me. Don't have to sit down with a disorganized filing cabinet several years into your professional career, and try to remember if you sold Hungarian rights to that novel, and if so, when did the contract expire?  I like to file things both on paper and digitally now.  And I like to have the digital file in at least two places, as in, on the desktop and on the exterior hard drive, or in the cloud if you prefer.  

 

There's a lot more to say on this topic, but my allotted time for this kind of writing has run out today.  And yes, I think a writer should have a time budget just as one has a money budget.  So I may write more of this tomorrow, unless I've used up the time elsewhere!

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