Chip MacGregor

July 28, 2016

Ask the Agent: How do I create a career plan as a writer?


I’ve had a bunch of people write to ask some version of “How does a writer create a career plan?” There’s a lot of talk about it, but not much in the way of specifics.

As regular readers know, I have a background in organizational development — that is, the study of how an organization grows and changes over time. In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found it’s proven very helpful when talking to writers about their careers, since the core of it is “figure out where you are, decide where you want to go, then determine a plan to get there.” That the core of org development, and its also the core of career planning. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of specifics about that in our industry. My contention is that some agents pay lip service to “helping authors with career planning,” but many don’t really have a method for doing that. (Actually, from the look of it, some don’t even know what it means. I think “career planning” to some agents is defined as “having a book contract.”) During my doctoral program at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I served as a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Career Planning and Placement Office. The focus was on helping people graduating in the arts figure out how to create a career plan, and that experience allowed me the opportunity to apply the principles of organizational theory to the real-world setting of those trying to make a living with words. So here are a few things I like to consider when talking with a writer…

First, I want to get to know the author. Who is he or she? What’s the platform he brings to the process? Does she speak? If so, where, how often, to whom, to how many, and on what topics? Does he have experience with other media? What kind? What’s her message? What books has she done in the past? What other writing is the author doing that could boost the platform?

Second, I want to find out about the author’s past – the significant events and accomplishments. I also like to make sure I’m clear on things like strengths, gifts, burdens… all of that helps give me context when discussing career paths.

Third, we have to talk about perspective – what is important to the author? How does he define success? What does she need to change? What do they want to accomplish?

Fourth, we sit down together (or talk on the phone), and we talk about personal organization. As I’ve said recently on the blog, every author needs a TIME to write, a PLACE to write, and a GOAL that he or she is writing toward. Do they have a plan in place? Are they moving forward? Do they have a project they are working on? Do they have a system to keep track of projects? Do they have a writing calendar, so they know what and when they are working on each project? Again, I encourage authors to create a budgeting calendar — something that is very important to every working author. Of course, each writer is unique – what they are writing and how fast they write it will be different for each person. But knowing their financial goals and what sort of help they need from me makes my role clear.

Fifth, we start to talk about an actual writing plan – what will the writer create over the next two years? The next five years? What plans are they making? What goals do they have? Do those plans reflect their values? Does it all match up with their life purpose? Does it maximize their strengths? Is their spouse or significant other in agreement with it all? Knowing an author is at peace with the overall plan is important if this is all going to happen in the writer’s life.

These things all work together to create a career map for an author. We take the information and figure out what the person needs to be writing, and how they’ll move forward in the industry. Various documents are derived from this information — a writing calendar, a budget, a wish list, maybe a statement of purpose. But my goal is NOT to get an author to write some grand purpose statement — my goal is to help an author create a workable plan he or she can use to move forward in a writing career. I aim to keep writers results-focused. I’ll sometimes ask an author questions such as, “What person would you most like to invest in this year?” or “What single thing would you most like to purchase this year?” or “What obstacle seems to be holding you back right now?” In talking through issues like this, we start to gain some clarity as to what an author wants to accomplish.

And, to be completely open about this, sometimes an author will work through the process and decide she really doesn’t want to be a full-time writer. And that’s okay, since the goal is to figure out the calling. I want the authors I work with to be crystal clear in their two- or three-year career plans. That way an author can understand what “success” is, and each person has a means of measuring progress. Feel free to ask me any questions about this — I’m happy to talk about the process of writing creating a career plan.

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  • Mel Lawrenz says:

    Keep it coming, Chip. Your message, clear and consistent, is helpful and sane.

  • Writerdeeva says:

    I will be honest with you. I find that a lot of agents are taking on ‘projects” or the one great book that “excites’ them, rather than a looking for writers. It seems that the publishing world is constantly in search for the hot ticket item, or the most trendy thing. And the writers of the world are being overlooked. Not all books are going to be the “it” book. But there are a lot good novels and writers out there that would produce and be consistent. I do look at writing as a business. And one good book, the book that “excites” an agent enough to take it on, isn’t always the best for a future, productive business. I don’t know how many times I meet authors who got a contract and publication and there is no new book even in the making. Or they are just starting to work on another book, knowing their last book took six years. How can that be profitable to anyone? There is so much more to writing than just one good story. But the query process does not evaluate that aspect of the business, and I feel that a lot of good writers and stories are being overlooked for this very reason. I would think an agent wants to make sure that the author has a method, plan, productivity to last a career. Does the author have a style that can be marketed? Can the author produce a book in business timeline? Can an author define what they want to produce that is consistent in the marketplace? Does the author have what it takes to work with publishing world? These are just a few things I am struggling to find out about the publishing world and the way the business is run. I loved your business perspective and find it refreshing. Thank you for sharing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well… I think EVERY agent is looking for “the one great book.” For that matter, I think every publisher and editor is also looking for that project, Writerdeeva. But that’s because everyone is hoping to find the next big thing and make a pile of cash. Still, most of us are always interested in finding great writers who have a story to tell. And yes, I want to know the author has a plan (and the talent) to make a career of it. Great artists sometimes get overlooked (think of all the great singers you’ve heard in church or in bars or singing at the fair), and publishing can have the same bit of arbitrary luck. That’s why this blog exists — to try and help good writers figure out a plan for moving forward. Really appreciated your comments.

  • Kelly says:

    Hi Chip! In the personal organization section, you mention a system to keep track of projects. Can you elaborate on some best practices for this? At this point, I’m using spread sheets to track my multiple magazine assignments, book marketing deadlines, etc. It is clunky. I have to believe there are smarter ways to accomplish this. Would love to hear your suggestions! Thank you.

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