As Christmas draws closer, I thought I’d look back a couple of years to when I chatted to three writers about how they manage their writing businesses during the festive period.
In the world of paid employment December is one long month of office parties, Christmas lunches, and arguing with Health and Safety about the fire risk of the red tinsel framing your computer monitor. It’s an entirely different matter for writers. Working in our isolated garrets means the office party rarely gets out of hand, but if it does there’s no one else around to notice. However, as December draws closer, it isn’t easy running a writing business when the rest of the business world is either away from their desk enjoying themselves or shutdown until the middle of January. Which means we have to change the way we work.
In my experience, December is a month of two halves. Deadlines sometimes get brought forward to accommodate this, and getting hold of people by email or phone becomes more challenging, particularly between the beginning of the month and about the 18th. Then there’s the shutdown itself, when entire businesses close from around the 19th December through to the 4th January.
It means I change the way I work. I send fewer pitches to editors as the month progresses, and I spend the earlier part of December delivering commissioned pieces before the magazine offices shutdown.
Travel writer Solange Hando, author of Be A Travel Writer, finds herself in a similar position. ‘I never pitch between mid-December and early January, because there are too many office parties and most magazines have everything wrapped up in good time, ready for an early and extensive break. That doesn’t mean I do nothing. I might write up the next commission – but wait to mail it, think about new ideas, research new markets and prepare pitches to send in January.’
It’s not just article writers affected by the Christmas period. Jo Derrick is a prolific short story writer, and she too cuts back on submissions at this time of year. ‘I worry about posting submissions when I know there won’t be a collection till the following morning, so there’s no way I’d post anything in the run up to Christmas. I can’t see the point when magazine editors are out of the office. I do worry about submissions getting lost in the post, and not just at Christmas. It’s nice to have a bank of stories to send out as soon as everyone is back to work in January.’
Jo is also the former editor and publisher of a small press publication called The Yellow Room, so she’s experienced life from the other side of the desk too. ‘Quite often there was an issue to get out before the Christmas rush,’ she says, ‘and there was always some sort of delay at the printers – possibly too many office parties, which meant that sending out the magazines clashed with the Christmas post. It was a nightmare!’
Esther Newton is a freelance writer, copyeditor and a tutor for the Writers Bureau, which means she’s juggling several different types of clients at this time of year. Like Solange, she holds off pitching ideas to editors, because she doesn’t want her emails being part of the deluge editors have to wade through upon their return in the New Year. ‘I try not to overload editors’ inboxes too much as they’ll have a plethora of e-mails to sort through when they come back in January,’ she says, ‘and it’s easy for an email to become lost or overlooked.’
Although many of us are cautious about sending submissions and pitches during the run up to and between Christmas and New Year, Solange makes an important point about publications with issues due out during this period. ‘Pitching or writing ideas specifically for the quiet time between Christmas and New Year can be welcome, because editors are often short of material for that particular slot.’
While the supermarkets seem to be open all over Christmas, many publications and publishers shutdown for anything up to two weeks, which means getting hold of anyone is nigh on impossible. This time is perfect for planning new projects and reviewing our work over the last twelve months.
‘I tidy up my office,’ says Solange, ‘ready for a new start, and top of my list is to fill up my New Year diary with travel and writing plans – that’s definitely the best bit!’
Esther does something similar. ‘I use the time to take stock and to start planning my writing year. I flesh out new ideas, research markets, etc. I also use the time to do some fun writing – to do some writing for me, perhaps a poem, or I’ll write a story and enter it into a competition. I try to get the balance right between spending some time on this and with family. I also have a notebook, which I’m always jotting ideas down in. The period between Christmas and New Year is a great time to look through it. Sometimes I’ll have missed something, or when I look through the book, ideas start to come to mind. It’s a great way to reignite the passion for writing and to get the creative juices flowing, ready for the New Year.’
Jo plans on using the period to get ahead, but acknowledges that it doesn’t always work out that way, mainly because this time of year is so busy. ‘I always vow I’ll write a Christmas story or two, ready to submit the following June or July, but it never seems to happen. This year I might get as far as making some notes in preparation. I’m not a fan of December at all! I find the whole Christmas thing very disruptive and rather depressing. I tend to buy most of my presents online, so that saves a lot of time, but writing Christmas cards seems to take hours. It’s always difficult to focus on my writing and the creative process when there are other jobs to be done.’
Sending Christmas cards to friends and family can be a bit of a chore, however, I believe there’s a business case for sending them to magazines and publishers who’ve bought work from me over the previous twelve months. Esther does too, not only as a thank you, but as a means of developing further business. ‘It’s a good idea to send Christmas cards to contacts and magazines you’ve written for,’ she says, ‘because it keeps you in the forefront of their minds, and you never know when they’ll be looking for a writer on a particular issue.’
Of course, the Christmas and New Year period isn’t just about writing, but spending time with family and friends, which can cause friction itself, especially when family expect you to be around. Self-employed people don’t always have the luxury of being able to take time off, while writers with full-time jobs may feel torn between spending time with family and using the off-work opportunity to do some writing. Solange had to put work before family at one Christmas, but it was for a rather special event. ‘There was a Buddhist festival in central Bhutan when monks, draped in garlands of skulls, performed religious dances to chase away evil. It’s an annual event in major Bhutanese monasteries, held on different dates, but at the time I was still limited to travelling during the school holidays. As for my family, my children were grown up, though still at home, and my daughter took charge of the Christmas lunch. I left, only two days before Christmas, so we all had our presents early, although no one minded that!’
It was a successful trip. Solange sold the travel experience to more than five different markets, so it was worth it, but she’s not travelled over the Christmas period since.
‘I have had instances when I’ve had to work on something over Christmas, when the family has been off,’ says Esther. ‘None of my family is self-employed, so when they come home from work they leave it all behind. They aren’t always sympathetic to my working in the evenings, at weekends to meet a deadline. I do try to take some time off at this time of year.’
One of my busiest years between Christmas and New Year was in 2006, when I received the page layout proofs for two of my books, from different publishers, on Christmas Eve. Upon checking the contracts I discovered that both books had to be proofread within 14 days, which fill me with dread at first, but thankfully it worked out quite well. The Christmas shutdown meant interruptions by phone and email practically disappeared, creating the perfect proofreading atmosphere.
However, we shouldn’t be left out of the Christmas party spirit just because we work alone. Make the effort to meet up with other writer friends for a festive meal during December. ‘I always try to meet up with at least one writer friend just before Christmas,’ says Esther. ‘It makes me feel like I’m going out of the office for a special Christmas lunch!’
December needn’t be a difficult working month for writers. A few changes to the way we work can still make it a productive time for our writing business. Deliver commissioned work early, before offices shut down. Consider holding off pitching ideas and sending new submissions until the New Year. And spend the end of the month thinking up new ideas, developing new projects and reviewing those projects that didn’t get off the ground this year. But most of all, don’t forget to enjoy the festive period with the ones you love.
Top Festive Working Tips For Writers
Solange Hando: ‘Christmas doesn’t have to be an excuse to stop writing or working … unless, of course, you want a break. And there’s nothing wrong with that!’
Jo Derrick: ‘To free up time abandon Christmas cards altogether and announce on social media that you’re donating the money to charity instead.’
Esther Newton: ‘Plan your December writing well in advance, and make allowances for things to crop up at the last minute, because they always do. Being a freelance writer means you have to be flexible.’