Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tax Tips from the Accountant's Daughter

Well, it's that time of year again, when we all scrounge up receipts, collect year-end statements, and try to remember every possible deduction. And though many of the writers I know make most of their income as a cafe barista or a Borders clerk, that doesn't change the fact that their primary occupation is writer and that they can deduct the necessary business expenses. Fortunately, my father is an accountant and has taught me many tricks of his trade. So in honor of tax time, here are some deductions writers should never forget:
  • Travel. Anytime you traveled for research purposes, to and from a conference or book signing, all of those expenses can be deducted. The cab ride to the airport, the airfare or the miles driven on your car, all should be reported to your accountant. (There are different rules for different deductions so I'd let the expert sort that out.)
  • Home Office. Most writers work from home and therefore have a slew of things to deduct. If you have an office that you use exclusively for writing (or are at least able to prove that you do) you can deduct a portion of your rent or mortgage. If you purchased a new computer, printer, or fax that you'll use exclusively for writing, you can deduct that as well. In addition to the obvious office supplies and postage stamps, you can also deduct a portion of your electric and gas bill. If you're working from home, all of the things you use to keep your office going can be deducted as business expenses.
  • Entertaining. Though you cannot deduct entire bar bills and dinner checks, it is possible to deduct portions of your entertaining expenses. If you take another writer out for drinks, treat an agent to dinner or take them to a ball game, all of that should be reported to your accountant. Little tip, next time you're at a conference, each member of your entourage should offer to get a round. That way, instead of each person only paying for themselves, they are paying to entertain colleagues and can therefore deduct it for tax purposes.
  • Research. This one can get a bit tricky and I believe deciding what to and not to deduct as research expenses is a matter of risk taking. If you're writing a book set in Japan, by all means, go to Japan and deduct the trip, hotel stay and various restaurant and bar bills as research. If your protagonist is a bartender and you deduct every bar bill, every weekend, as research purposes, that's a bit more risky. When doing research for a novel or article, make sure that everything you spend is a necessary expense and that it is directly related to what you're writing about.

*Note for the newbies. Just because you didn't earn a lot as a writer this past year, doesn't mean you are not a writer and cannot deduct these expenses. The general rule of thumb is that you should make a profit within 5 years. And even then, you only run the risk of being audited, and if you do get audited, you only need to convince the IRS that you are in business to make a profit. Come on, we're writers. We can convince the pope that Jesus was just a hippie. If you are serious about writing, you will eventually make a profit, probably well within the 5-year expectation, but until then, don't be afraid to deduct.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Zen and the Art of Writing

I've recently been very into yoga. What started out as a one day a week cross training that my swim coach recommended has turned into a four days a week, I'm going to do a headstand if it kills me, addition to my fitness routine. After sitting at a computer all day, the bending and twisting works wonders for my neck, shoulders and back.

But this week, one of my instructors said something that resonated with me. As we were preparing to go into "upward bow", basically a full back bend, he instructed us to take these poses playfully. He acknowledged that many were challenging and physically demanding, but if you approach them as a child would, unconcerned and without fear of failure, that you'd be able to accomplish poses you never thought you could. And sure enough, me, the most inflexible, ungraceful person ever, achieved "upward bow" that day, and I attribute it completely to my playful attitude.

I've written many times about the need to approach writing with a seriousness and a professionalism, and though I still agree, I've been thinking that the yoga instructor has a point. What would happen if we viewed our writing playfully, without fear of failure or judgement? After all, isn't that why we started writing in the first place? Because it was fun?

I've found that the shift in attitude has allowed me to break down all types of censors, some I never knew I had. I'm currently working on a short story for another anthology and so far, it has been quite the process. I've often found myself stuck, without words coming through and total blocks in plot movement. But today, when I sat down, I didn't think about the 800 words I needed to finish or the deadline looming over my head. I thought, "I enjoy writing. Writing is fun. Write what's coming and if it sucks, I can always delete it." Reminding myself why I started writing, that as a child I did it only because I enjoyed it, allowed the words to flow and turned the process into a fun activity rather than an obligation.

All of us are so focused on deadlines and career goals, target audiences and marketing angles, figuring out the next big plot or writing the best first line, that we lose sight of why we became writers in the first place. Give it a shot. The next time you sit down to write, tell yourself to approach the task playfully, like a child would, without fear of failure or judgement. Does your attitude shift? Does the writing come easier? Do you feel more free with your words? I may just be spending too much time standing on my head or trying to lift my leg over my shoulder, but I swear the zen-like attitude can be the ultimate cure for writer's block.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Past and Future Leaders

Check out my latest article, Past and Future Leaders, at I reviewed the biographies of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, George Washington, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.