Thursday, July 23, 2009

The writer's office: get it on the cheap

When I decided to seriously try my hand at fiction, I had been making my living for years as a freelance medical writer and editor and had an office fully stocked with goodies—fax machine, copy machine, a couple dozen dictionaries, a bookcase full of supplies, even a transcription machine.

Luckily—given the yearly earnings of a fiction writer just starting out—no such stockpile is needed to get started in fiction. In fact, if you already have a computer with Internet access and a telephone, you can outfit your office for less than $500. I did so myself, in fact, after Hurricane Katrina displaced me for a few months and I created a bare-bones office to keep working.

Here's what I recommend if space or finances limit you to the minimum:

•a light-business-duty multifunction machine that prints, copies, scans, and faxes ($100–$200). A multifunction machine doesn't need to cost much more than a printer, and they are often on sale at office supply stores.

•a telephone answering machine ($20–$30) or a voice-mail system. You don't want to miss any calls from editors while you're at the post office mailing submissions.

•a sturdy card table ($50–100). You can use it as a computer table, a desk, or a surface to put your printer and dictionary on.

•a hardcopy dictionary that comes with a CD-ROM for your computer ($75–$100).

•a thesaurus. My favorite is Rodale's The Synonym Finder, which retails in paperback for $17.

•a spiral-bound month-by-month calendar (<$15). All your contest and anthology deadlines and story deadlines can go in here and be in one place. You can also check off the days you write. Most such calendars have note space where you can log your business phone calls, submissions, or other information you need to keep a record of. •basic office supplies ($100–$150). For myself, this would include a black-ink Pilot Dr. Grip gel pen, pen refills, a box of #1 pencils, bright white printing paper, 8-1/2 x 11 pads, colored small paperclips, colored large paperclips, binder clips, file folders, tape, scissors, Post-Its, #10 business envelopes, stamps, and back-up ink cartridges. (Substitute your own favorites here.)

•a ledger (<$20). For tax purposes, you need to track your business expenses and earnings. Tossing receipts and check stubs into a grocery bag is not considered good accounting practice. •a back--up system (price ranges widely). Losing a story or book you put many hours into can be devastating. Back up your files at least once a day, and you'll never lose more than a day's work. Some cheap ways to back up are onto CDs, a Zip disk, or a flash drive.

And some extras that are really nice to have if you have the money and space:

•a desk, preferably big with drawers.

•an ergonomic chair so you can work comfortably for long hours.

•a high-speed Internet connection.

•a bookcase (various prices).

•a file cabinet.

•a hard-disk back-up and/or off-site storage (various prices).

Something I learned from my own experiences after Hurricane Katrina: Ask friends and relatives for castoffs from their own home office. Many people have office supplies they no longer want or need, perhaps even an old printer or desk sitting around, and are glad to get rid of them and free up some space.

Other places to get things cheap for your office are eBay; second-hand stores; garage sales and estate sales in upscale neighborhood; and stores that sell new but dented, scratched, or otherwise damaged merchandise at big discounts.


I'll be posting again at Novel Spaces on August 7. Find out then what a nonfiction writer needs to unlearn when expanding into fiction.

Shauna Roberts


Anonymous said...

I would also recommend cheap or free software over expensive packages. As writers, our requirements are relatively simple, compared with complex home or office businesses. For example, I've gone with the free suite instead of Microsoft Office. It does almost exactly the same tasks without the price tag.

Are you suggesting using another hard disk as a backup media? If so, I would caution against that. Here's why.

KeVin K. said...

With three kids in the house, my office was several milk crates full of stuff in the hall closet that I pulled out after everyone was asleep and set up on the kitchen table. Now with only one child in the home and one former bedroom dedicated to storage and the other to exercise equipment and clothes drying, my office is several milk crates full of stuff in the exercise room I take down stairs before anyone else is awake and set up on the dining room table. Receipts in a grocery bag? Nonsense. Shoe box.

Charles Gramlich said...

Great suggestions. I bought a couple of cheap TV trays that I use for keeping working notes on. I had a large office in the 90s with a very nice desk, but now I write on a small desk with cheap bookshelves and TV trays around me.

Phyllis Bourne said...

Instead of a desk, I wish I had a huge (seats 8-10) dining room table in my office. I just never seem to have enough surface space.

Rick said...

Shauna, where were you when I was starting out??

Liane Spicer said...

Some good ideas here, Shauna. I wrote my first novel lying in bed at night after teaching all day and being cook, mom and homework supervisor in the evening. Graduated to the dining room at my mother's house a few years ago, then last year got a nifty little laptop desk so I could sit up in bed and work away from the blare of TV and constant interruptions. Great in theory - but it didn't work for me. Without proper back support I kept sliding down on the bed.

This year I got a desk and cleared out a corner of the bedroom for it. I'm trying not to use my bed as additional surface space. Losing that battle.

Got a file box from PriceSmart and that works for now. Printer died and it's just as well; where would I put it? So I print manuscripts at the print store; it's actually cheaper than buying the ink (out here anyway).

Farrah Rochon said...

Great ideas! I really need to get a ledger instead of my file folder, and that ergonomic chair is an investment I've been meaning to make.

For now, my back-up system is a flash drive and emailing my manuscript to a private address. It works for now. :)

Shauna Roberts said...

CAPTAIN BLACK, good advice at your link. Thanks for sharing it.

KeVin, you have more patience than I do to carry milk crates around every day. Probably good exercise, though.

CHARLES, the TV trays are a great idea. I used them in my temporary post-Katrina office and they were great for organizing my papers.

PHYLLIS, you and me both on never having enough surface space. When I'm working on a big project, I often set up a card table in my office and use the space both on top and underneath.

RICK, where was I? Making all the mistakes in office organization that taught me how to do it better.

LIANE, I agree, the bed is a very tempting surface for storing and organizing papers. I try to use the floor instead, which has its own problems.

FARRAH, thanks. See Captain Black's link for some thoughtful discussion on back-up systems.

Steve Malley said...

Hi Shauna! I see I'm a bit late to this party, but I did enjoy your column. My office, I went secondhand with most everything, which is good since I spend most of my writing time sitting in the living room anyway... :)