Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Interview: Freelancing with Patricia Fry

By Russell Gifford
© 2006,
Russell Gifford


 

Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of 24 books (and counting). Her articles have appeared in about 250 magazines including, Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, Canadian Author, Pages, Cat Fancy, Woman’s Own, Entrepreneur Magazine and many others. While several of her books are published by traditional publishers, she established her own publishing company, Matilija Press, in 1983, before self-publishing was fashionable. Patricia is the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network) www.spawn.org.  

 

Vision: First, congratulations!  You have sustained a lengthy career as a non-fiction writer, with articles in a number of magazines - including Writer's Digest, Cat Fancy, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Woman's Own. The list seems to go on and on. Could you give an outline of your writing career? How long have you been selling non-fiction articles? What got you started?  

PF: I have been writing for publication for over 30 years. Even during those years when I was dreaming of becoming a writer—before I actually took the plunge, I aspired to write nonfiction. I prefer reading nonfiction. I guess I’m just a give-me-the-facts sort of gal. I started my writing career in 1973 with a manual typewriter on a small desk placed in the corner of my bedroom. The first article I wrote sold to the first magazine I approached. And the first book I wrote was accepted and published by the first publisher I approached. Both writings related to horses.  

I read a lot about writing during the years I was busy raising my three daughters and when I started writing, our family was involved in horses (we were doing a lot of trail riding and packing and the girls were competing in shows). They say to write about what you know, that’s why I started out writing about various aspects of using and caring for horses.

I’ve since written articles on numbers of other topics and, along with a goodly amount of acceptances, I’ve certainly received my share of rejection slips. 

My articles are always fairly positive. I have avoided writing on controversial issues and I don’t look for the negative hook in order to grab the attention of an editor. I’ve interviewed numbers of people from all walks of life and always try to profile them in a kind light. I’ve tackled topics related to the world of business, but from a soft angle. I write on the soft side of business—using intuition in business, organizational tips for your office, teen businesses, networking ideas and so forth. I also write on health, fitness, parenting, grandparenting, public speaking and now I write mostly about writing and publishing. While I write nonfiction, I write with both the fiction and nonfiction writer in mind.  

Vision: Any articles that still stand out in your mind as favorites? Was there a magazine that you desperately wanted to crack when you started? If so, did you achieve that aim? Feel free to share the names of favorite magazines you've sold to, or a few stories that go with a special sale!   

PF: I really enjoyed writing those long, 3,500-word researched essays for “The World and I” magazine until they quit publishing the print version. This afforded me the space to vent and to, hopefully, make a difference on behalf of children, families, seniors, animals—or whatever else they would allow me to “speak” to. As for a magazine that I wanted to crack, I “cracked” quite a few of them over time and with pride. I even had small pieces appear in “Reader’s Digest” and “Family Circle” some years ago. I believe that I have something to offer “AARP The Magazine” (formerly “Modern Maturity”). Maybe someday I’ll convince them of that. 

My purpose for writing is two-fold. First, it is a passion. Even though it is nonfiction that holds my interest, I find that I just can’t not write. I have to write! It’s so much a part of who I am and what I’m about. But, in 1986, it also became my way of earning a living, so I’ve had to look at writing as a business rather than a frivolous activity designed to tickle my fancy. I’ve had to make business decisions, so I approach writing a little differently than I would if I was writing purely for enjoyment. Consequently, I seek out the job—the work—the potential for selling the article or earning the largest paycheck. And, thankfully, I’ve done so always with my sense of values intact. I’ve turned down assignments that went against my grain and my belief system.  

Vision: I said above that you have "sustained a lengthy career as a non-fiction writer." Do you feel that way? Are you satisfied, or is there a market you're still wishing you could place a sale with? 

PF: I have sustained a lengthy career and I am more than satisfied. That said, of course, I have a wish list. I think that a writer without unmet goals is a writer dying on the vine. I am constantly reviewing my goals and setting new ones. Currently, I dream of producing a book of cat stories that I’ve been working on behind the scenes for years. I would like to write a novel before I step away from the keyboard. My only experience writing fiction is when I used to write stories for my children when they were small.  

Vision: Is writing a sideline, or your main source of income?  

PF: Writing has been my source of income for about 20 years. It wasn’t an easy transition from hobbyist to career writer. I’d been writing at home already for about 13 years when circumstances occurred which made it necessary that I get a job. I became despondent. Even though the job was enjoyable and I worked with wonderful people, something was direly amiss in my life. One day while on my early morning walk, I realized that I was unhappy because I wasn’t writing. It looked as though a full-time job would be my life for a long time and I knew that I had to find a way to write no matter what else was going on in my life.  

I started getting up at 4 every morning. I would write for two hours and then I’d take my walk and prepare for work. I also wrote on weekends. I completed an entire book within 8 months on this schedule. Not only was I much happier, I realized that I could build a writing business using those same two hours every morning and maybe eventually cut back to part-time at my job. A year later, I quit my job completely and went home to write full-time. I am convinced that if my love had been fiction instead of nonfiction, this would not have been possible. Things do seem to have a way of working out if we will just let them—if we will follow our instincts. 

Vision: Based on your experiences, what kind of money can a freelance non-fiction article writer hope to make in a month, or a year, selling to magazines?  

PF: The possibilities are amazing, actually. But one must have a business head as well as a writer’s heart. You should also be diverse. While I wrote primarily for magazines for many years, I also solicited side writing work. I was once commissioned to write the history of a world-known private school in my community. This was an extra $300 per month in my pocket for several years while I interviewed former students, researched and wrote this 300+ page book and saw to it being published. I had also established my publishing company by then in order to produce a 360-page comprehensive history of the Ojai Valley (where I live in Southern California). I was profiting from these books, as well.

Over the years, other writing jobs came up and I took most of them. I would teach a workshop occasionally, give a class at the community college and do some writing for a local company or agency, etc. And then I finally succumbed to the pressure from others to take on clients. I’ve always helped others with their projects, but in 2000, I began considering these people clients. This increased my bottom line. 

So now I am not only a freelance writer and author, but I am a consultant, editor, lecturer and workshop leader. Like I said, it takes a business head and these are all business decisions. I am just so fortunate that my heart agrees with each of these decisions. Yes, I am still having fun and I’m making money, too. 

Vision: What does it take to achieve that? Can you break out how many article manuscripts you have in the mail on a normal month?  

PF: As I said earlier, my goals change periodically and the shape and scope of my business does, too. Currently, I’m submitting fewer articles, selling more books and working with more clients. When articles were my primary source of income, however, I might have around 100 query letters on a variety of topics out at any one time and maybe anywhere from 3 to 10 articles requested. If you can write and sell 5 articles per month at an average of $500 per article, that’s $30,000/year. If you only write for mags that pay $800 and above and you can sell 3 articles per month, you could earn as much as $45,000 or 50,000/year. It’s all in what you are willing to do and what standards you set for yourself.      

Vision: How do you choose topics for your articles? Do you specialize in certain subjects? How much time does it take to research and write an article for your typical sale?  

PF: I’ve written articles on the topic of choosing topics for your articles. Writer’s Digest published one such article. I say that there are article ideas everywhere and that if you aren’t aware of them, you just aren’t paying attention. While I’ve never specialized, I am rather discerning about the subjects of my articles. I like writing with a positive flavor. It does my heart good to think that I might help someone to do better or be better. And I’ve discovered that I love to teach. Over the years, my pet topics have included cats, youth mentoring, fitness, health, exercise, gardening and anything that helps children. Currently, my articles almost all focus on writing and publishing issues. As for how long it takes to research and write an article—it depends. There are a variety of types of articles. There’s the essay, the bulleted piece, the interview article (such as this one), the profile piece and the article in which experts are quoted, for example. Some articles are written how-to style and others are more conversational. The type of article generally depends on the magazine. While some articles are written right off the top of your head, others take various amounts of research to produce. So, while I can write a 1,200-word essay-type article or how-to in just a matter of a few hours, it might take a week or longer to complete one that needs extensive research and expert quotes—depending on how much time it takes to contact experts and locate, evaluate and write the information.  

Vision: How does one prospect for non-fiction markets? Any suggestions for our writers that could help them crack non-fiction markets? Is there a good place to start? Did you start with a strategy in mind? If so, did it work? 

PF: I suggest starting by writing about what you know and pitching the magazines that you are familiar with. That’s what I did and, yes, it definitely worked. Then I began writing about things I wanted to know about, things I observed, etc. I recommend using the “Writer’s Market” to find magazine listings and contact information for editors. These listings also include their pay scale, suggested word count, types of stories/articles they are looking for and so forth. “Writer’s Market” is available at most libraries in the reference section and for sale in most bookstores. It sells for around $30. Another strategy (and one that I have used, as well) is to study what’s current in the news, in other magazines, in your community, in your child’s schools, in the workplace, and come up with a unique way of presenting it. Pitch your idea to appropriate magazine editors.  

I can’t stress enough the importance of really understanding the magazine for which you want to write. What type of articles do they publish? You must conform. What do they advertise? (This gives you a clue into their audience.) Adhere to their word count. I see far too many would be article-writers who write a personal essay of 3,000-words when the editor asked for a 1,000-word how-to piece, for example. 

Vision: How often do you write? Do you set aside time daily? If so, how long do you write? What is your average day like? 

PF: I get up every morning at 5 and I write until around 8. I do my household chores (clean out litter boxes, make beds, etc.) then I go for a walk. If I have a workshop or speech coming up, I will rehearse the speech while I’m walking. Otherwise, I use this time to meditate. I go back to work around 10 and write until noon. I take a break to run errands (generally including delivering and shipping books, picking up supplies, etc.). Then I work all afternoon from about 1:00 until 5:00. I generally work at least 10 hours on weekends, as well. 

Evenings are often spent working on an index for an upcoming book, proofing a soon-to-be-published book, searching for an appropriate magazine for an article idea I have or doing bookwork, for example. 

Vision: Has the writing business changed since you started? Is it better or worse? 

PF: Yes, the business has changed—as has the publishing industry. We have more magazines launching, but more magazines folding. There’s more competition for writing work. A sense of loyalty is harder to detect among magazine editors toward their writers. There seems to be a greater turnover of staff on magazines from the top publishers and editors on down. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. If you’ve been writing for a magazine for years and the editor changes, you will probably also be replaced. But if you have not been able to infiltrate the magazine, a new editor might mean a great opportunity for you. 

Vision: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Has your career progressed the way you thought it would? 

PF: I didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer until I was married with kids. My husband and I didn’t have money to participate in holiday giving the way we would like, so I wrote poems and created Christmas and birthday cards using construction paper as gifts for our family. I found that I also enjoyed writing letters and, as I said, stories for my children. When my children were still babies, I began to dream of being a career writer. It wasn’t until my daughters were young teenagers that I actually began to live that dream. 

I’m not sure that my career has progressed the way I thought it would. I didn’t see myself being the author of 24 books (and counting). I did not imagine that I would be helping other writers and authors with their writing projects. Nor did I consider that I would be traveling around speaking to freelance writers, authors and independent publishers. So in response to this question, my career has become more than I expected. I’ve actually become more deeply imbedded in the world of writing than I ever thought possible. 

Vision: How have you changed since you started writing? Has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there article subjects that matter most to you? Are they the same ones as when you started writing? 

PF: When you’ve been involved in something as intense as a writing career for 3 decades, it’s hard to know whether it was the writing that contributed to the changes or just the act of living life itself. I’m sure that the accolades I’ve received over the years for my various writing-related activities have helped to build my sense of self.  

Ten years ago, I became involved with a fledgling organization called, SPAWN. That’s Small Publishers Artists and Writers Network (www.spawn.org). I helped to develop this networking organization locally. At one time, we had 3 chapters and I attended 3 meetings every month in 3 different counties where I almost always spoke. SPAWN is now online only. We have a membership of 200 plus 2,000 subscribers. My affiliation with SPAWN and my book promotion activities have certainly put me in the limelight more than I expected and this has served to help build my level of self confidence. 

As for the type of articles I currently write, I think I mentioned earlier that they are mostly all writing/publishing-related now. I write an 8 to 11-page monthly “Market Update” which is posted at the member area of the SPAWN Web site. I keep up with my publishing blog (www.matilijapress.com/publishingblog), I review books and write articles for “SPAWNews” (our free monthly newsletter) and I also write articles and constantly send out reprints mainly on writing/publishing topics (in order to promote my writing/publishing books and SPAWN), but also occasionally on other subjects. “Catholic Digest” just gave me an assignment out of the blue. A recent article of mine will appear in The “Toastmaster Magazine” this month. I have a piece pending with “Cat Fancy.” And I’m working on one for “New Age Journal.”  

Vision: Your writing appears to have turned heavily toward non-fiction books on writing, or on the business of writing? Do the books now take precedence over articles? Do their sales augment the income, or are they the real push?    

PF: I do a lot of book promotion. And I promote my work as a consultant/editor. Currently, the work with clients and book sales are probably earning more money for me right now than are magazine articles. But that’s because I’m not pushing the articles as much as I used to. It takes an incredible amount of time to come up with article ideas, flesh them out and then locate the right magazine. I just don’t have the time for that these days. I think I’m a little burned out on that whole process, too. 

Vision: Who has influenced your writing? 

PF: My bill collectors. 

Vision:  Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?  

PF: Not studying the market—diving right in with their great ideas without researching the viability of their article of book. My suggestion—research, research, research. Keep in mind that publishing is a business. Once your desire shifts from pleasure writer to published writer, you must transition from heart mode to business mode. 

Vision: Do you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers? How should they be using it, if it is? 

PF: Absolutely it is an excellent tool in many ways. But it can be a dangerous place for unaware writers. Stay involved. Participate. Pay attention. And always double-check anything that doesn’t ring true. Use the Internet to learn about the writing field, writing techniques and writing opportunities. Use it to conduct research, but always validate the information you glean. Most of all, use the Internet to connect with other writers. I have made some wonderful friends by getting involved in writers/publishers forums. And I learn a lot this way, as well.  

Vision: What do you have coming out that we should look for? What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?  

PF: I hope everyone will take a look at my Web site. I’m sure I have a book for every writer. My “Successful Writer’s Handbook” is a great collection of tips and ideas for the freelance writer. “A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles” is a great book to help you get started in this field. And, of course, my latest, Greatest book, “The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book” is perfect for the hopeful and the struggling author. 

As for the future, I hope to continue traveling around to various conferences throughout the U.S. and beyond and speaking to writers and authors. I’ve just published my first book for another author through my 20-year-old publishing company, Matilija Press. “Johanna’s Journey” is a true story of love, loss and faith. It’s actually the story of a friend of mine. Rick McGrath is a very talented first-time author. www.matilijapress.com/johanna.html. I may be producing books for other authors. And I am coming out with a small book in December (number 25 for me) on my experiences in Dubai earlier this year. 

Vision: Thank you for taking this time for this interview. 

Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of 24 books (and counting). Her articles have appeared in about 250 magazines including, Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, Canadian Author, Pages, Cat Fancy, Woman’s Own, Entrepreneur Magazine and many others. While several of her books are published by traditional publishers, she established her own publishing company, Matilija Press, in 1983, before self-publishing was fashionable. Patricia is the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network) www.spawn.org.