Doing the Right Thing at the Wrong Time

There are so many ways to procrastinate that look like work, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done. For instance, I have a friend who loves to market her writing, to talk to editors, interview, and put together outlines. But she detests turning those outlines into articles. She will send out an extra five letters of introduction, reconcile her finances for last year, make

I also take photos of flowers when I'm avoiding writing fiction.

I also take photos of flowers when I’m avoiding writing fiction.

budget predictions for next year, and scrub the toilet in order to avoid the actual writing part of her job. All of her procrastination activities are useful and helpful, but they are a good example of doing the right thing at the wrong time.

I’m writing a novel. I have a gap-ridden first draft, and am about a quarter of the way through first revisions. It has taken me about ten times longer to get this far than I ever imagined it would. There are lots of reasons it’s taking so long — from the fact I have to earn a living writing other things to being fearful. If you’ve been a reader your whole life, and you have a good idea of what good writing is, it can be terrifying to put your own work out there.

In any case, I find myself doing the right things at the wrong time constantly. Yesterday, during my scheduled writing time, I found myself wondering what categories I would use on Amazon when the book is completed. If you know much about self-publishing, you know that categories and keywords are critical because they are how people find your work, so choosing the best ones is the right thing to do. Choosing them when the book is only a fraction of the way to being finished is the wrong time to do it. I have also chosen an editor (who I will not be able to afford, barring a winning lottery ticket or other unforeseen windfall), and have discussed cover art with an artist whose work I admire. Right things, wrong time.

What productive things do you find yourself doing to avoid the hard stuff? Do you go with it, or do you exercise some discipline get yourself on track?

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“I’ll Take a Look at It on Spec”

The majority of my writing clients are regular clients, and most of them are people I’ve met. I work with several local business owners, and a few folks I met or found online. In any case, my invoices go to pretty much the same group of people month after month. Sometimes there will be additions, and sometimes clients will drop off. Now and then, I like to look for new work — either because I’m ready to boost my income, or I want to learn about a new industry, or I have a good story idea.

Recently, I decided to look for publications within a particular industry. I had some ideas for stories and wanted to see what the market was like. I identified a couple, called

It's nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

It’s nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

one, and learned they preferred to receive queries. I read several past publications then pitched three articles. The editor liked one of them and emailed me to say that she would “take a look at it on spec.”

If we were talking about a publication I’d dreamed of seeing my name in for years, maybe I’d feel differently, but my first reaction (in my mind only) was “I don’t work on spec.” But then I thought about the fact that this editor doesn’t know me. She would be taking a risk by assigning an article to an unknown. I offered to send clips in my introductory letter, but maybe she doesn’t have time for that. Even if she does have time to look at my clips, she has no assurances that I will turn in clean copy; there’s always the chance that my clips were cleaned up by some other editor.

However, I would be taking a risk by spending the time to write a good article on spec. It would, of course, be tailored to fit the tone and voice of this particular publication. There would be several interviews involved. It would take time and effort to do it right — time and effort that I could be spending on doing work for clients who know (and regularly pay) me, or looking for clients willing to take the risk of getting to know me. There are definitely two sides to this spec coin!

Ideally, I could offer this editor some kind of compromise, but I’m having trouble coming up with one. The publication is lovely, and one of the best in this particular niche. The pay is what I’d call average to low in the wider lens of magazine writing, but high for the industry. I’m opposed to working on spec — on principal, and because this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. Getting paid matters. There’s the possibility of pitching the same story to several publications in case the editor doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Have you dealt with this situation? What was your response? 

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Do You Wear a Mask?

When it comes to interacting online, there are as many opinions as there are people. You see words like “authenticity” and “transparency” tossed around, and there are discussions of privacy that deserve our attention. The fact is, we all wear masks all the time. You behave differently at home with your family than you do at work. When I was working as an office assistant, I wore makeup to work everyday and realized it was because I felt the need to hide a little in that particular environment. I’ve never had a job where I was 100% openly dava. (Except for now. As a freelancer, I’m me, through and through.)

This is one of my better masks!

This is one of my better masks!

Years ago, I started writing letters, by hand, on paper, mailed at the USPS to my parents-in-law. The idea was to communicate with them in a way I could control. They wouldn’t hear anything in the background like on the phone, and they couldn’t see my weird self like on visits. I could show them what I wanted them to see and share news they would like to hear. It totally worked, too. They went from not really liking me very much and expecting news of a divorce any day to thinking that I was a pretty good mom and we were a happy family (which was all true).

In a way, social media profiles are like my letters. People are showing you what they want you to see. There are plenty of posts and studies and articles about how Facebook makes us lonelier and Pinterest makes us less satisfied because we feel like our friends are doing better than we are, or that we can never have the kind of beautiful home or wedding or whatever that other people do. And, lots of people do only share the good stuff.

There’s this whole other group of people, though, who seem to use social media as a place to talk only about the bad stuff. People who share every little thing that goes wrong, and who ask questions like “Why can’t I ever catch a break?” or who share way too much about their family drama, or who complain about their jobs, or just whatever. Maybe it’s their way of combatting all those pictures of happy people? Who knows, but it sure is tiresome.

Then, there are some people who share nothing personal. Maybe they only share links, articles, and photos regarding one topic — writing, or music, or art, or cooking. Those people bore me in an entirely different way. I want to know what they think about those things, where they live, what their lives are like to some degree.

So, it’s a balancing act. You have to show some happy stuff, but also a little bit of bad stuff — but not too much. You need to share stuff that shows your interests and knowledge, but other stuff too. Then, bit by bit, you create an online mask that is much like your real self.

Do you consider any of this when you post on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+, or wherever you hang out? Do you have a different mask for each platform? What are your thoughts on being authentic? Do you actively tone down parts of your personality when you are online?

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Diversify & Other Lessons from the Freelance Writing World

There are some pieces of advice that turn up ubiquitously in articles and blog posts directed at freelance writers:

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

  • Learn to say no.
  • Always have a contract.
  • Never stop marketing.
  • Diversify your income.

Smiling Tree Writing has existed as a business for about six years now (I think. It might actually be 7. I’m losing track!). I’ve had the opportunity to learn why certain bits of advice show up over and over again.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about having a diverse income and what that means for me. Summer before last (the summer of 2012) was the lowest point my business has encountered to date (and hopefully ever will). My income was down to about $800 a month — a fraction of what my family needed. At that time, most of my income came from 2-3 regular clients and a couple of one-off projects each month.

At that time, I was reading “diversify” to mean that I should earn money from writing articles for publications, selling my own books, working with clients, and then create a few “passive streams” from things like ads or affiliations. My idea about what a diversified income looks like now is drastically different.

Back then, I was trying to diversify my income by adding more article writing to the mix. The majority of my work was with small business owners, creating site content, blog posts, and newsletters. I began sending out letters of introduction and writing for print publications, even if the pay was lower than it should have been. It wasn’t working.

It’s hard to pull out of that kind of downward spiral, and the thing that helped me was to take a job. It ended up being a short term thing, but it was exactly what I needed in order to mentally reset. In the year since, I’ve taken definitive steps to diversify my work activities, and have finally hit a comfortable mix.

I have two part time jobs, one of which is completely outside my realm of expertise and gets me out of the house for about 15 hours each week – I work at a restaurant 2 evenings a week. The other is a marketing job that I do from home for 10 hours each week. Then, there is client work, which creates the bulk of my income and takes up the majority of my time. I also sell a few books, and am working on writing more with the goal of that portion of my income gaining significance.

Although working in a restaurant or as an hourly employee may not be the typical freelancer’s dream, it means that my income won’t suffer too much should any one client decide not to use my services. It also means that I have more flexibility to follow one of those other often-repeated bits of advice: I can turn projects down if they aren’t a good fit, without being terrified I’m making a financial mistake.

Now and then, I play with the idea of dropping a couple of clients in order to have more time to work on my own projects, or quitting the restaurant job to find more clients or to look for another part-time marketing job. This mix of work gives me options.

During that terrible summer of the downward spiral, it didn’t feel like I had many choices. I think that is why the advice to diversify is repeated so frequently — it gives you more room to wiggle. My particular working situation is also highly flexible. I can do client work in the middle of the night, we have been able to take several short trips this year, and I can make time to pursue personal projects (like writing fiction).

What piece of tried and true advice have you found to be of vital importance when interpreted correctly for your personal situation? Have you ever discovered any conventional wisdom that needs a bit of twisting to work well for you? 

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Developing Discipline

The most frequently visited post on this site is about pursuing multiple goals at the same time. Today, I’m going to share a little more about how I personally pursue multiple goals, and the kind of planning I do. Most everyone knows that having vague goals is about as useful as having no goals. For instance, if you are a writer and your goal is to finish a novel someday, chances are mighty low that you will actually finish a novel. Most of us need some kind of deadline attached to those goals.

I couldn't find an appropriate photo, so here is a beautiful pond lily.

I couldn’t find an appropriate photo, so here is a beautiful pond lily.

There is no lack of “epic” posts, blogs, podcasts, and motivational what-have-you on the internet. That’s not what this is. This post is about the nitty-gritty details of what you need to do to actually get things done. It’s so much more fun to be told “You can do it! You are awesome!” than it is to figure out when, where, and how you can do the work. Make no mistake: if you want to reach your goals, you have to do the work.

Following is a list of my goals for the summer, along with what I need to do, and by when, in order to reach them:

  • Publish my first novel, tentatively titled Disappearance at Pine Lake, by July 31.  This is a huge goal, with several pieces and parts:
    •   Complete the second draft by the end of May.
      •       In order to finish the second draft by the end of May, I need to work on it 5 out 7 days every week.
      •       I will share chapters as they are completed with my critique group. The goal is to get one chapter or section up for critique each week.
    •   Get the manuscript to at least three beta readers and a cover artist by the first week in June.
      •      I need to have approached the betas and saved some money while completing the draft. My potential cover artist said she would do it for $40.
    • Complete the third draft, using the suggestions and criticisms of my critique group and beta readers, by the second week in July.
    • Spend the final two weeks of July formatting and getting ready to publish.
  • Write a second non-fiction tip book by the end of August. (I plan to publish a whole series of tips books.) This one will be called 27 Blogging Tips for Busy Real Estate Agents.
    • Create an outline and begin fleshing out the tips by the end of May.
    • Draft the manuscript by the end of June.
    • Send the manuscript to 5 or 6 beta readers by the middle of July.
    • Edit and format the manuscript by the end of July.
    • Create a cover and publish in August.
  • Begin working on a co-writing fiction project in early May.
    • Add 1000 new words per week to the first draft beginning the week of May 10.
    • Edit one section written by my co-author each week.
  • Add three new clients to my freelance business by the end of September. I’m looking for three very specific types of new clients, and in order to find them I will:
    • Create a weekly marketing plan to target the three areas I’d like to find new clients.
    • Follow the plan.
  • Help grow a GIANT garden.
    • Spend at least 4 hours per week gardening.
  • Track calories eaten and exercise at least 5 out of every 7 days.
  • Take time off to enjoy my family and the world.  This list will grow, but so far I have these things planned:
    • go to the beach for a weekend in May
    • go to the Smokey Mountains to see the azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom in late May or early June
    • have monthly gatherings of my extended family (read: parties!)
    • go camping at least once a month
    • take several long (full day and overnight) motorcycle trips
    • get out in the woods in the evenings once or twice a month
    • have a backyard fire once a week
    • ride my bicycle to work once a week

In the midst of all that, I will also be working at each of my part time jobs 10-15 hours per week, exceeding the expectations of my existing clients, moderating and participating in my online critique community, and about 14,000 other things. I’m busier than other people, and I’m not better at reaching my goals. What I am good at, though, is realistically considering what I want to do, what will be involved, and figuring out how to make it happen — or sometimes IF it can happen.

It’s nice to think that we have the power to reach any goal we set out for ourselves. But sometimes it’s just not feasible. In January, I decided that I would publish three works of fiction this year. That is absolutely not going to happen. It’s not going to happen because I want to spend time on that last part of my list. Doing the fun stuff is as important to me as the work. Without family parties, camping trips, and time to relax, I hit burnout fast. Acknowledging that fact is difficult. I want to believe that I can work like a superhuman and do all of the things. And I can — for about two weeks. Then, everything crashes and burns.

How do you balance work, personal projects, health, and time with your family? Do you give yourself deadlines, or are you the victim of vague goals? What advice would you offer someone else pursuing multiple, complex goals? 

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