Examining My Story

Early this month, I posted about being back in my place as a full time business owner.  A couple of weeks ago, I had several conversations with a friend about what her ideal job would look like, which led to some deep soul searching. Yesterday, I read Peter Shallard’s excellent post about the

I'm still weaving my story. (photo credit: flickr, Creative Commons)

I’m still weaving my story. (photo credit: flickr, Creative Commons)

power of our personal narratives. All of that together added up to me taking a serious look at where I am, how I got here, where I want to be, the best way to get there, the story of then, the story of now, and of then, and of the journey between the two.

In Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig, I shared a certain personal narrative – the tale of how I ended up back in an office. Today, I’d like to share my new story:

My Story, Version 2 (aka The Truth)

A quirky lady who never quite found her professional niche got laid off around the time she had an idea for a writing business. She drew unemployment and read a lot of books. Then she began finding clients.

It’s easy to get complacent, though, and she does. She has a few clients and is making enough money to get by, and gets lazy. Eventually clients start dropping off, as is normal, but she doesn’t replace them. She spends most of her time waiting on clients to come to her. She does some half-hearted marketing, then decides to find a job.

The job doesn’t work out, so the writer decides to work harder. She realizes that everything that came before was research, career prep, and important. She learned about all the different ways one can be a freelance writer, all the different ways a writing business can be run. She made a slate of contacts, and realizes that all of that will translate into a better business now.

She shines up all of her samples and past work and starts making lots of phone calls. She calls businesses, ad agencies, and nonprofits. She writes everyday. She pitches blogs that pay contributors. She thinks of a few unusual ways to market and begins trying different things. Sheh emails letters of introduction and queries to editors.

She tracks all of her ideas. And enjoys all of it! Even the calling. It takes a little motivation to make 20-30 calls a day, but she realizes that she likes talking to people, learning about their businesses, and finding out more about the world. She makes lists, becomes aware of time management and starts getting more done each day.

It takes a few months, but she soon finds herself in a position to pick and choose her assignments. She is writing nonfiction books and selling them, doing some editing work, blogging, ghost writing, and writing – and more importantly PUBLISHING – fiction. She is making more money that she ever did as an employee.

What about you? I’d love if you share your personal narrative in the comments!  

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Collecting the Data

Beginnings are exciting. The fire of a new idea courses through your veins, your imagination builds perfectly constructed, beautiful castles. It’s true whether you are beginning a new job, outlining a new business, writing a new story–it’s exciting to START.

Endings often mean relief. You feel as if a weight rises from your chest, your stomach unknots, and you realize you’ve had your jaw clenched for awhile. Even if the ending presents new challenges and new worries, it’s normal to feel relieved when something that doesn’t feel quite right ends. The feeling that accompanies the end of a successful project can be elation and relief together, or maybe a vague sadness or nostalgia laced with relief.

There’s not even a word for what happens between the beginnings and endings, though. Middles? Middles are tough. That’s the slog, the grind, the hard part. Ask any writer and they will tell you the middle of a story is the hard part. After the excitement of getting started at a new job dies down, and the newness wears off, you are left with just…doing the work. In a sociology class I hated in college, I learned that the middle years of most marriages are also the least happy.

It’s easy to give up in the middle. It was about the middle of my first half marathon that I started wondering what in hell I was doing on that trail. Once you’ve outlined a business idea and it’s time to implement it, the real work begins, and it might not be quite as appealing in the execution as it was as a plan. Right now I’m in the middle of completing a certain number of cold calls, and everyday it’s a little harder to convince myself to pick up the phone.

The middle has something to teach you, though. It’s where you collect the data to test your theory, and where you learn if you enjoy doing the work. Without getting through the middle, you cannot feel the relief of the end.  You can’t experience the pride of a job well done if you don’t do the work. The idea stays an imaginary castle in the air if you don’t force yourself to actually hammer the nails.

What I’m trying to say here is…I have to go make some phone calls!

Do you struggle with middles? Do you have any tricks or tips on how to make yourself see projects through? 

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Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Smiling Tree Writing is, once again, a full time operation. After three months as an employee, I’m back at my desk where I belong. Someday, I will write a post describing my short term employment, and probably it will be entertaining, but it needs a little distance first. In the meantime, I’ve been pondering my decision to re-enter the world of employment–what led to it? I love running my own business, working from home, collaborating with other business owners, choosing when and what I work on…so why did I seek out a position as an employee?

In order to answer that question, I had to take a look at the course of my business since its inception. Smiling Tree Writing began as a way to earn income on the side, and became a full time business after a lay off. The transition from side gig to full time business brought along an increased sense of urgency, though, and I strayed from my original plan–which involved calling businesses and offering my services as a professional copywriter.

Cold calling is a slow way to build a business. It takes hundreds of calls, follow up emails, patience, thick skin, and more patience. I found quicker success with local small business owners–many of whom clearly had a need, but not much of a budget. Over the course of a couple of years, I found myself lowering prices, doing more for less, and in a funk.

I decided to switch to sending query letters and letters of introduction to editors of print publications. By this time my savings were depleted, and things were critical. It’s hard to run a business when you’re against a wall. I did get some assignments, but by this point my family needed a steady paycheck.

This time, I’m charting a path forward more carefully. Planning, executing, and perhaps most importantly, measuring. There are multiple backup plans in place, set points at which to stop, take stock, and decide how to proceed. It’s awfully easy to lose your way without a map.

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5 Questions to Answer When You Are Struggling to Reach Your Goals

Today is the first day of the second quarter of 2013. It is also the first day of a new month, and we are early in a new season. It’s a good time to take stock of your business, your goals, your progress towards your goals, and make some adjustments. In January, pretty much everyone is listing goals for everything from losing weight to getting organized to making more money. By the end of the first quarter, those lists are often lost in a file, or buried on a hard drive. But what good are goals that are never revisited?

Last week, my fantastic “writing buddy” asked if we should take a look at our goals and progress from the last quarter when we talk this week. I grumbled. I didn’t want to look, or to talk about it. Later,

Not much feels better than achieving a hard-earned goal.

Not much feels better than achieving a hard-earned goal.

I had a conversation with a couple of friends about tracking calories and how much I hate doing it and how it feels borderline obsessive. One of them gently suggested that perhaps some denial was at play – that I hate tracking calories because of what doing so reveals.

In both instances, my hesitance is directly related to my lack of progress in reaching stated goals. Sometimes, after you have broken your goals down in as many different ways as you can think of, and you still aren’t making progress, you just want to hide from them. Or maybe deny they ever existed.

As we all know, hiding won’t get you any closer to what you want. So, maybe it’s time for me (and maybe you, too) to analyze the goals themselves, and perhaps begin to think about them a little differently. Here are some questions I’m pondering this week:

1. Are my goals realistic? Are they things that it is actually reasonable to attempt? Pretty much everyone knows about SMART goals – the kind that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. While those requirements are usually part of professional goal-setting, they can be useful when it comes to personal goals, as well – especially if you are not seeing the kind of progress you would like.

2. Do I have all of the necessary tools to reach these goals? For example, if you want to build a deck, you are going to need some lumber, some nails, a hammer…along the same lines, if you want to complete a half marathon (a goal I recently achieved!) you are going to need a training plan and some good shoes.

3. What outside forces are going to impact my ability to reach this goal? Most of the time, there are going to be factors that you cannot control that slow your progress. Yes, personal responsibility is important, and yes, you have to be disciplined to reach most important goals, but you live in a world where things get in the way. Early in my half marathon training, I hurt my back. I had to take about a week and a half off. Even with plenty of stretching and strength training, I still had to deal with a minor injury. This is probably the part of working towards my goals I most often ignore. That may be true for you, too.

4. What part of the plan did I fail to execute? Oh, this one is so very hard to think about. Sometimes, I have no problem heaping blame on myself, and other times, some stubborn part of me refuses to acknowledge that I might be shirking my self-appointed “duties.” Of course I don’t want to track calories because I am sure that I’m eating healthfully. No need to track. None. I have no idea why I’m not getting more writing assignments from trade publications. I’m sending out tons of letters of introduction – no need to count them. I know I have been.

5. Are there factors I was not aware of when setting this goal? Sometimes when you start working on your plan, you find out about obstacles you never imagined getting in your way. Much like the outside forces that slow you down, these things are mostly unpredictable. You might even find that you need a whole new plan once you find out about them. One thing that I learned in my running program was that a trail run and a road run are quite different and make different demands on your body. That isn’t really written out plainly anywhere in Running World and the only way I learned it was by living it. (Hush! I don’t care how logical it seems. I didn’t know until I was gasping for air on the side of ridge!)

I would so much rather watch the season premiere of Game of Thrones than sit down and try to figure out why my first quarter numbers add up the way the do. I would one million times rather finish reading Season Three of  Yesterday’s Gone than add up how many calories I’ve consumed today. But neither escape would get me any closer to being the super-fit, financially comfortable person I aim to be.

Do you have any techniques that help you analyze where or how or why you are not reaching your goals? 

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The Power of a Spreadsheet

Last weekend, I got into an argument with a crowd of people about how many laps around a .3 mile track it would take to complete 6 miles. Everyone one involved possessed a high school diploma at the very least, yet there we were, a roomful of adults, disagreeing about some very basic math. If you have read many of my posts, you know that math is not my strong suite, and so I lacked the confidence to back up my assertion that it takes 20 laps – despite the fact that I had, that very day, thought about it quite a lot while running those 20 laps.

Spreadsheets are important to my business life because they remove the fuzziness inherent to mathematical questions for me. I have spreadsheets for prospects, articles written, publications Screen Shot of Smiling Tree Spreadsheetqueried, letters of introduction sent…I even use spreadsheets to organize books that I am writing. With the information so neatly laid out, it’s easy to figure out the ratio of queries sent to assignments received, and to compare time spent marketing to monthly income changes.

Last week, looking at a spreadsheet brought about an epiphany. Wait. “Epiphany” isn’t quite the right word. It connotes something good, right? This was not good. Maybe “startling realization” is a better descriptor. Or possibly “stark realization.” Yeah, that’s what it was. Stark.

In general, I think of myself as a pretty determined person. I tend to keep trying long after common sense says to stop. But, my spreadsheets tell a different story. Most of my freelance clients are business owners, and a great deal of the writing I do is ghostwriting. In other words, I don’t have many bylines. My name is generally not attached to my work, and often, it is a condition of my contract to not disclose I wrote an article or a book or whatever. Several months ago, I decided to query a few publications in order to have some work published under my own name.

I have a great accountability partner, and since most of her work has been for trade publications, she has been helping and encouraging me to send letters of introduction and queries. She helped me put together some good query letters and shared her own (very successful) process.

After a couple of months, I was ready to quit. I had gotten two assignments for print publication. Neither paid well, and one ended up being such a fiasco I eventually withdrew my article from consideration for publication.

My accountability partner encouraged me to continue. She said it hadn’t been long enough for me to make a judgement about whether or not the process of querying was working for me or not.

“But I’ve seen so many!” I whined, pathetically.

Pondering her advice, I decided to go to my trusty spreadsheet and count exactly how many. To make my point about it not working.

Of course, counting proved her point, not mine. It felt as if I had sent hundreds of emails to editors, some pitching story ideas, others simply introducing myself. In all reality, I’d only sent about 25. Determined, huh?

The same kind of thing has happened again and again. I feel like I’m working so hard, only to check my spreadsheets to find that I’m not, really.

How do you track your activities? Have you ever found that you are not working quite as hard as you thought?  

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The Bucket List Post

As a goal-oriented person, lists are part of my day-to-day life. There are lists on my desk of chores to do, groceries to buy, bills to pay, tasks to accomplish, long-term goals to strive toward, and more. But, one list I’ve never made is my bucket list, for a few reasons. One is that the idea of “before I die” is weird to me. Philosophically, I lean more toward “I could die at any time, so better do things I love everyday.” Another is that bucket list goals are BIG goals, and I find it much, much easier to focus on smaller, easier-to-attain goals. However the challenge has been issued, and I shall rise to it!

My bucket list is going to be divided into categories, because…well, that’s just how I think.

Business/Professional Goals

Earn $_____ in a year. I’m not telling you how much, but there is a number in my head!

See significant income from (non-fiction) book sales. So far, I’ve only published one book, but another is on the way soon. Several more are in the plans. Hopefully, the sales of these books will supplement my retirement income.

Begin publishing fiction on a regular basis. Maybe two books a year. I don’t expect to write “the great American novel” but I would like to be a solid mid-list writer and entertain some people.

Earn an award, or other public recognition, for my professional expertise. Yes, it’s shallow, but I love a gold star.

Travel Related

Take a 6 week or two month vacation and drive across the country. I haven’t been many places, and would like to see the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and the Pacific Northwest. We have friends all over the country. It would be awesome to take a couple of months and go visiting.

Visit Mexico. This one has been on my mind since college. I have a minor in Spanish, and taught Spanish for several years. Studying the history and culture and language of a country gives you the desire to see it.

Personal 

Run a half marathon. This one is in the works. I’m training for a race in March, on my birthday.

Write fiction. Yeah, this one is on here twice. It qualifies as both professional and personal, and it’s an important one.

Make my home beautiful. I’ve always dreamed of a beautiful house and yard that can serve as my oasis. Right now it’s more of a moldy shack, but I have big dreams.

Raise a substantial portion of the food I eat. I’ve always wanted an amazing garden, and now I’d also like to raise some animals, too.

Learn to knit, and beekeeping, and much more about herbs, and soap making, and quilting…this list could go on for a long time, so I’ll just stop.

 

And finally:

Be surprised by and delighted with and appreciative of  whatever comes my way. Some of the best events in my life have been completely unexpected. I would hate to miss out on something amazing and wonderful because it wasn’t in a plan or on a list.

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