Can you make money from blogging?

Five years ago I sat in the front row of a Pro-Blogger event listening to a range of speakers – all professional bloggers – describe the copious amount of money they earned from their blogs.

I was incredulous.

I had been under the distinct impression that writing, in any form, was a humbling and poverty-inducing career choice; that one chose it from a place of deep desire, like a religious calling, and not because you could actually make a buck from it.

Apparently, I was wrong, and there were many ways of making money from blogging, the type of money that involved five or six zeros. Before the decimal point!

At that stage, my sole output was a parenting blog called Relentless [find it here]. I refused to monetise it because I told myself it would be disrespectful to my children. It was lonely up there on the moral high-ground, and later I decided my scruples were irrelevant considering the personal and often embarrassing stories I shared about aforementioned children.

I sat there wracking my brain for blog ideas I was qualified to write about and which I could monetise.  Reaching into my bag for a pen and paper, my fingers closed around a flyer for an upcoming mini-fete at my daughters’ school. Parents were being asked to organise stalls or activities to raise funds for the Kindy. The prospect was terrifying. I’d never seen a room empty so fast. We were brand new school-parents. What did we know about fundraising and organising fetes?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what they refer to as a ‘lightbulb moment’. An epiphany. Usually accompanied in movies by the sound of a cash register.

Ka-ching!

I did all the right things. I got a professional to help me build the site. I designed a Media Kit. I spent three months writing content before the site even went live. I signed up for analytics. I brainstormed hundreds of ideas for articles. I jumped onto social media. I began to build a brand. Fundraising Mums was born.

I was motivated by the fact there were over 10,000 schools in Australia and 6,500 community sporting clubs. Even if only a handful of people from each were involved in fundraising, that was thousands of potential readers who would be actively searching for information and who wouldn’t mind if I had paid advertising or sponsored articles. In fact, they would LOVE the fact I was promoting fundraising businesses.

Ka-ching!

While I started my site with an eye on building a business that would be financially independent, it quickly became clear I was a writer, not a business-person. I wasn’t very good at selling myself. I didn’t always want to wait for businesses to approach me for sponsored ads, so if I thought they had a good product I wanted to share immediately, I did it for free. When start-ups approached me to share their new businesses, I often didn’t charge them. I repaid my early supporters with ongoing heavy discounts.

While my girls were at school, I spent two or three days a week researching and writing articles, designing graphics, running social media accounts, writing newsletters, responding to reader queries, making videos and approaching businesses. 15 to 20 hours a week for five years.

Ka-plonk.

I stand by my early assessment that anyone choosing a life of writing is probably going to wind up starving in a box somewhere*. At least this was my own experience of trying to build a business from what was effectively a labour of love. Fundraising Mums became a way for me to pay it forward, to help other parents in the same bewildered state I had once been. I spent years volunteering on the P&C at my daughters’ school and it was symbiotic with the work I was doing at Fundraising Mums. But now, as I have finally stepped away from the school role to focus on my books, I have found I need to step back from my blog/business as well. I want to be underpaid in a whole different genre of writing**.

So, I have made the decision to sell Fundraising Mums to the only other Australian site dedicated to fundraising. For five years she has been my competitor, from now she will be carrying the torch alone. It is a compliment that she wants my content – my writing was always better than my business sense – and I feel relieved that in a way I will continue helping parents across Australia through her.

And so, from the dilemma of selling my soul to advertising I move to the dilemma of selling what is essentially a book-baby, something I grew and nurtured over the years. Something that I now must release into the care of someone else.

Not a single person I have talked to thinks I am doing the wrong thing. It’s the right time to move on. My daughters have drawn me a sign that says ‘no regrets’. It sits on the wall just above my screen, so it’s always in the corner of my eye.

Selling Fundraising Mums will free up my time for other writing projects that need my full attention – I have four book-length projects that I’m currently working on. I only have one problem – perhaps an extra 15-20 hours a week might not be enough!

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*I want to acknowledge that my husband actively ensures we don’t end up starving or in a box. Without his support I would not be able to dedicate as much of my time to writing.

** This is a joke! I really want to be a best-selling author making loads of cash.

*** So the answer to the questions posed by the title is yes, you can make money from blogging, but no, personally I didn’t.

Writing Character Arcs (or Falling in Love with your Characters)

‘But does Winnie actually want a husband and children, or is she happily single?’ my mentor Brooke asked as we discussed my book, Letting Go. ‘What does she want from life?’

‘Ahhhhh,’ was my rather inarticulate response.

I didn’t know. It suited my purposes for this particular character to be childless, but I hadn’t considered why she was childless. I hadn’t considered lots of things about her. Winnie didn’t even have a last name.

‘I think you need to write character arcs for your six main protagonists,’ Brooke told me.

I duly wrote down ‘character arcs’ in my notebook, and underlined it twice for good measure.

Later on when I started searching ‘how to write a character arc’ I learned it was a way of mapping the journey or growth of a character throughout the story.

“A character arc maps the evolution of a personality through a story. It’s a term that writers use to describe their protagonist’s journey from a place of comfort to rapid change and back again: hence, an arc. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story’s end, they are a changed person.” https://blog.reedsy.com/character-arc/

In this particular book, I have six primary characters. I knew some of them intimately, but others I realised, I was using as little more than plot devices. If I was treating them so appallingly, why would readers care about them? I needed to show all six of my main characters some love by spending some time with them and getting to know them better.

So even before you attempt a character arc, you should complete a character profile. This is where you describe your character’s physical, social and emotional details – pretty much as if you were filling out an online dating profile.

“Hi! My name is Winnie. I’m 35 and work as a paralegal. I could have gone to law school to become a lawyer but have a chip on my shoulder about my family so I decided to go travelling for a decade instead. I wear my clothes like a uniform so I don’t have to make decisions about what to wear each day and carry an empty Keep Cup around and pretend to drink coffee so I don’t have to have conversations with people. I don’t actually like coffee. I don’t think I like people either. I am single and don’t have kids. But my author hasn’t told me yet whether I am happy or sad about this, so… yeah. She’s a bit disappointing really.”

There are a lot of free character profiling tools online that you can download. One I found was thirteen pages long and had over 120 individual questions you needed to answer for your character. Topics include the character’s bucket list items at different ages throughout their life and what they do in the middle of the night if they can’t sleep. It’s comprehensive and you can find it here but with six characters it was a tad more thorough than I required.

So I made my own.

As I went through my first draft, I began pulling out small details and quotes to add to each character’s profile/arc. Sometimes it was an observation by another character, sometimes it was backstory – but eventually, I began building up a detailed summary of each character and I could see how deeply I understood some of them – and where others were a complete mystery.

Unlike my other novels which have been inspired by the true stories of real people, the characters that populate Letting Go are wholly figments of my imagination. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I have a world of people living inside me, people who are unlike anyone I know in real life, but who are begging to have their story told. If I was anything other than a writer, that could be a significant problem.

Naturally, Brooke was correct and once I completed my profile/arcs for my six characters, I could see the gaps in my story. I was then able to go back and stitch up the holes – sometimes it required a whole scene, sometimes it was just a matter of adding a small detail.

I don’t believe you need to know everything about a character you are writing before you start, or even after you finish. No one is ever fully known to another – sometimes we don’t fully know ourselves. But if you’re going to spend months or years writing about a character, you should be a bit informed about them. This isn’t a blind date.

 

You’re very welcome to use my Character Arc and Profiling Tool – if you think I have forgotten anything important, drop me a line.

Addicted to flashbacks

It has become apparent that I have (amongst other terrible habits) an over-dependence on the use of flashbacks. It’s so pronounced in fact that a chapter I have just rewritten was about 75% flashback. Ouch.

I went searching for confirmation that I was not alone, that other, better writers had terrible habits too, and it hadn’t ruined their lives. I found this fabulous paragraph on Medium, in an article by Clare Barry called ‘Everyone’s a copyrighter, right?

“Virginia Woolf had a beautiful habit of swapping the narrative perspective mid paragraph. Jane Austen used double negatives. Charles Dickens was the king of run-on sentences — and E.E. Cummings didn’t give a flying cockatoo what you thought about capitalisation. That man capitalised whatever word he damned-well pleased. Or didn’t. Don’t get me started on Hemingway, whose grammar was a mix of playful creativity and 46% malt whisky.”

I’m not so much a whisky girl, as someone who boils the kettle in the ensuite so I don’t have to venture into the kitchen and risk running into family members who might want to engage with me. It means my book is relying on instant coffee but it’s a small price to pay for uninterrupted writing time first thing in the morning.

My dependence on flashback is because I am writing a highly structured book that follows six characters throughout a month. As you move through the book, each character has a day, but as in real life, sometimes interesting things happened yesterday, or three days ago.

My beloved mentor, Brooke Dunnell, recently pointed out that a chapter I had written started with a single sentence in the present day (a Sunday) then promptly jumped back to Wednesday, then Thursday then Friday before returning briefly to Sunday a few lines before the chapter ended.

When I colour-coded the chapter to see how bad the damage was, it looked like a United Colours of Benetton advert from the 1990s.

Letting Go over-reliance on flashbacks Ch 9

There are some generally accepted rules when writing flashbacks, the first being ‘don’t use too many’, but I’ve already established I’m a rule breaker (sometimes I even have UHT milk in my early morning bathroom instant coffee!).

But another important rule is that you need a trigger to start the flashback, as well as to bring your reader back to the present time. In real life when you suddenly stop to think about something that has happened in the past, it has usually been triggered by one of the senses – you see something or smell something that takes you back. The same should happen to your characters. Simply starting the sentence:

On Wednesday, when Winnie shared the waitress’ suspicions, Katharine had laughed…

is lazy. This admittedly is one of my current sentences, but it’s still early days of my flashback recovery, so I need to take things slowly.

Another rule is the flashback needs to advance the story – you can’t just drift backwards to discuss the weather or show off your beautiful literary turn of phrase; if you’re going to use a flashback, it needs to progress the plot. A good comparison is when someone starts describing their dream to you – they’re often wildly disconnected and boring as hell to the listener – you do NOT want your flashback to read like this. It must have a point that you couldn’t have made in the present time.

That being said, I realised that if I could re-write my flashback sections into the present time, I probably should. I couldn’t change the timing on all my flashbacks, but there were certain things – like a phone conversation – that could be moved.

The other good advice I received from Brooke, was to delay the first flashback for as long as possible. This means the reader can be established in the present day, before whisking them back to the past.

This is the colour-coding of the chapter after some work. I still have flashbacks, but they start much later in the chapter and there is significantly less of them.

Flashback chapter after some work

Working through this one chapter has made me much more cognisant of my addiction to this literary technique, and I suspect I have a fair bit of work ahead of me to reduce my overall reliance on them. But I have no doubt that one day my book will be much more than a mix of flashbacks and instant coffee.

Why You Should Keep a Record of Rejection

In 2010, with a toddler, a newborn baby in my arms and the knowledge that we would be trying for a third baby in the not-too-distant future, I went to a career counsellor.

Prior to having my children, and I’d spent close to a decade working at various universities in three states. My last job had been as the manager of a clinical trials group, and I had been told that I was always welcome to return to my job – as long as I was prepared to come back full time under the same conditions.

I wasn’t.

At this stage I had three degrees, none of which were particularly practical, and an ad hoc career path that could be broadly defined as ‘researcher’. I’d worked part time for 18 months after my first daughter was born, but, along with the rest of the company, was let go when the GFC sent the small start-up crashing to the wall.

The career counselling process was comprehensive and over three months and multiple sessions, we whittled our way through what I was qualified for versus what I actually enjoyed doing, my values and priorities and a range of psychometric tests that matched me to a range of careers, many of which I’d never even heard of.

The end result: writer or event planner.

I love planning a party and in another life probably would have made a fabulous event planner, but with three small children, working on other people’s events on weekends and in the evenings didn’t sit well with me.

Besides, I had wanted to be a writer since I was in primary school. I just hadn’t considered it to be something you could make a career out of [spoiler alert: I still haven’t made it].

One of the first things I did was sign up for a website which advertised itself as sharing advertising income with its writers. You would be paid every time person a read your articles, and in a sense this was true. I just hadn’t realised it would average around a cent for each reader. Still, not one to be deterred by common sense, over the next nine years I penned around 650 articles earning me a little over $10,000. I’ll save you the effort – that averages $15.38 an article or approximately $1,111 a year.

The other thing I did was start a spreadsheet of all my writing submissions.

In the first heady months of ‘being a writer’ I made a few ill-judged tenders, sending poorly written, totally unedited pieces out into the world.

The first entry in my spreadsheet is Text Publishing. Under ‘Article Details’ it says ‘selection of unedited baby emails [short stories]’. In the ‘Outcome’ column it says ‘Rejected (mail)’.

That, dear reader, is the optimism only complete ignorance and entitlement brings.

I look back at that with a stomach-churning mix of shame and bewilderment, hoping they don’t keep a file of their worst submissions, a black-list of names they pull out every Christmas to add further merriment to their festivities.

I spruiked a subset of those stories a few more times to magazines and even the ASA Mentorship Program (oh the shame) before good sense finally caught up with me and I moved my personal ramblings to a blog called Relentless where they fared a little better.

The next entry in my spreadsheet looks totally different. This is because I actually submitted something that had been asked for: a short story for the West Australian on the theme of summer. In the ‘Outcome’ column, it is highlighted in red, and says ‘First Prize, published 22/1/2011. (Prize: Macbook Air). You can read it here.

Like most of my writing to that point (and since), it was rushed and over-enthusiastic. Self-editing wasn’t a concept I was familiar with, and I emailed it off so quickly I neglected to even give the story a name. But for whatever reason, the writing gods decided to smiled on me, and in January 2011 I saw my name in print for the first time, and won a spiffy new laptop to boot.

Despite the fact they spelled it wrong, seeing my name in black and white was a heady feeling. Addictive. Energising. Encouraging. I knew I had to keep going. I had many more stories I wanted to tell.

As I scroll through the spreadsheet now, almost a decade on, there are far less red ‘published’ entries than there are ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘no response’. My hit rate is around 1 in 6. That’s to be expected. Some of the rejections sting more than others. The silence can be hurtful, especially when something sits on someone’s desk for months on end, languishing in purgatory. I’d rather just know, so I can move forward, look for a new home for that piece of writing.

But the overwhelming feeling I get when I look through the spreadsheet is pride.

I don’t look at the lengthy column of ‘unsuccessful’ outcomes and think I’m a failure. Instead I look at the long list of stories I have written, of articles I have submitted and I feel proud that I have put myself and my writing out there.

I am creating worlds out of words, and while not all of them have found a permanent place in print, in the words of Wayne Gretzky, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

So in effect, I’ve decided my spreadsheet is not actually a record of my rejections, but a compilation of my creations.

 

Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”


― Nelson Mandela

 

Interviewing Experts for your Novel

‘They wouldn’t be sweating once they were in cardiac arrest, even if it was a cocaine overdose,’ the lady across from me said. She stopped to think. ‘With a heroin overdose they might be sweaty once they’ve been resuscitated and trying to get back to normal, but it would be unlikely that two people in the same group would take such different drugs, one is such an upper and the other a downer. On coke, they’d be excitable and energetic, and if their heart was racing too fast they might end up in cardiac arrest.’

I thought for a moment. ‘So if I delete the bit about being sweaty once he’s unconscious and on the floor, and add in a line about the man being loud and obnoxious before he ends up collapsing?’

‘Perfect.’

Admittedly, it wasn’t a typical conversation to be having over breakfast. Our waitress gave us raised eyebrows as she overheard snippets about drug overdoses and drowning. Not me – I was fascinated and kept asking more questions, madly writing notes as we went.

I was interviewing Writing WA Literati Tammie Bullard, who is both a paramedic and a writer, and who had kindly agreed to help me with some of the technical questions I had for my current work in progress. My story has six main characters and most of them have careers in fields that I know precisely nothing about. It’s fine to depend upon Google and a fertile imagination for a first draft, but now I’m working on my second draft I knew I really needed some authentic detail.

I love the solitude of being a writer, of needing to rely on no one except myself. It’s probably one of the reasons I have pursued writing for so long, rather than seek more traditional work. I like people – they fascinate me. I like to study them and write about them. But I like to stay a step back.

There are some times though, when you need to step forward and ask for help, and this was one of those times. My paramedic character has a number of key scenes in the story, and it’s imperative I get them right. Initially I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook, asking fellow writers how I would go about finding a paramedic willing to help me. It wasn’t long before I had lots of great offers of help, but when I reached out to Tammie, I knew instantly I had made the right decision.

Over Eggs Benedict we discussed everything from terminology to staffing to career progression and medical events. She taught me how a call would come through to the depot, and the fact that it was called a ‘depot’ and not ‘station’ as I had written 23 times and subsequently needed to change.

Tammie isn’t the first expert I’ve interviewed for this book. I had the good fortune of speaking with chef Stephen Clarke last month about what it is like to run a fine dining restaurant and also Dr Kelly Shepherd on life as a botanist and being a PhD scholar. I am incredibly grateful to each of them for giving their time and expertise to add detail to what must seem like a rather eclectic group of characters.

Here are some lessons I have learned about interviewing experts for your novel:

  1. Be prepared. People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge so make sure you have your questions ready to go. If you are cold-calling them, they might be ready to chat then and there, if you email them, they might be willing to meet the following day.
  2. Only ask about what you can’t find online. Do your research in advance both on your interviewee and the topic in general. Gather as much information as you can and then frame your questions around the gaps in your knowledge – or to confirm with them what you have discovered online. Don’t walk in saying ‘tell me everything’ – it wastes everyone’s time.
  3. Know your non-negotiables. What specific information must you get? Do you have a particular scene you need advice on, or do you need background information before you start writing. Make sure you get the main pieces of information you need before you hang up/leave.
  4. Let them talk. Apart from getting your non-negotiables, let your expert talk, don’t interrupt with too many questions or your own stories. You will learn all sorts of details that will add colour and authenticity to your story. Even if you have a list of specific questions, make sure you ask ‘is there anything else you think I should know?’ Don’t feel obliged to fill silences with more questions – sometimes people just need a moment to think.
  5. As they talk, listen for emotive words that describe the environment they work in. Jot down lingo and jargon (ask them later what it means), how they label and describe things. For example, when interviewing Stephen, I noticed everyone called him ‘Chef’ and not his actual name. It’s a sign of respect and something I now use to effect in my novel.
  6. If possible, visit them at work. When interviewing Dr Shepherd we wandered around the UWA campus and she pointed out the buildings where my character would work. She also showed me things like the glasshouses and taxonomic garden hidden in the middle of campus, which will add authentic detail, and in the case of the garden, a clue to the dramatic end of the story.
  7. Get permission for follow-up. If things go well, you might want to contact them again with follow-up questions or to read over a specific scene. Make sure they have your full name, phone and email in case they need to get in contact later.
  8. Get it down quickly. Make a decision if you want to record the interviews or just take notes (ask permission either way) and block out a period of time immediately after the interview so you can type up your notes straight away. Even if your notes are little more than dot points, you will find you remember a lot more than what you have written down, but keep in mind that will fade the longer you leave it.
  9. Keep a spreadsheet with the names and dates of interviews you have conducted, along with their contact details. Add to this anyone else who has assisted in any way during your writing. This makes it easier when it comes time to writing your acknowledgements.

What is your experience of interviewing experts for your novels and writing? What other tips can you share?

 

author and Stephen Clarke

With chef Stephen Clarke

Spending the $50million

I’m sure you’re familiar with that marvelous feeling, after you have bought a lotto ticket but before the draw, where the possibility of winning the $50 million dollars is so real and tangible you can taste it. When you are making lists in your head, spending your winnings, deciding which holidays to go on, which homes to buy, which magnanimous donations you will be making.

I am living the writers equivalent right now.

I have written the stories, entered the competitions and between now and the time the long lists are announced I can indulge in daydreams about winning the prize. In reality, I probably have more chance of winning the lotto than one of the many literary prizes I have entered, but until the lists are announced anything is possible. And what are we as writers, if not able to visualise a future with written-to-order happy endings, specifically designed to meet our own requirements for maximum pleasure?

The literary equivalent of spending of the $50 million prize is dreaming about your story as a physical book. It is seeing your name in print. It is imagining yourself running your hand over the cover, smelling the fleeting new book scent.

It is imaging your acceptance speech, the welcome cramp in your hand signing books for readers, the pride of seeing your novel in the window of a book shop.

It is imaging a future where you can move from saying I am a writer to I am an author.

The disappointment that comes with seeing the list of names on which yours is missing, is real but blessedly brief. Reality quickly crowds back in. You may spend a day or two deflated, dejected, rejected but then you take a deep breath, swallow that lump away and push forward. Pick up that pen again, keep writing, do it all again.

No one ever actually expects to win the $50 million lotto prize. I don’t expect to actually win any of the writing competitions I have entered.

But I can still dream, and until I hear otherwise, I’m spending the fifty million.