Ideation

One of my strengths as a writer is being able to think up lots of ideas—story ideas, ideas on how to tell a story, ideas on how to find new clients, ideas about running a business. Ideas are usually the easiest part of the process.

Even though I like brainstorming and coming up with ideas, I don’t usually enjoy pitching story ideas to publications. One reason is that it takes a ton of time, and it’s unpaid time. Another is that publications aren’t great about responding an uncomfortable percentage of the time.

The problem is that if I don’t spend time brainstorming on a fairly regular basis it’s much harder. Recently, an agency client asked me to put together a list of potential ideas for one of their clients. They were paying me to do the work, which was awesome, and since it’s one of my favorite things, I agreed. When I sat down to actually start the list, I felt that deer-in-the-headlights thing. Frozen. Unable to come up with anything. For one panicky moment, I thought I’d lost it; my idea well had run dry.

Of course, 10 minutes of reading and an hour or two of thinking (while doing other things—you can’t let ideas know you’re chasing them, you have to come at them sideways) I had a pretty good list. But it was a good reminder that even the things you’re good at require some practice.

I’m adding “participate in a pitch fest once a quarter” to my list of goals for 2022!

A beautiful setting helps stimulate creativity

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Seasonal Changes

Every spring, and again every fall, I find myself feeling a bit lost. I skip workouts, or ignore my weekend to-do lists, and feel generally either frantic (usually in the spring) or discontented (in the fall). I’ve come to realize that my schedule needs to be readjusted seasonally.

In the spring and summer, most of my spare time is spent outside, either in my flower garden or my family’s big vegetable garden. The weekends are filled with cookouts, trips to the creek, boat outings, free concerts, camping, parties, and other outside activities. It’s hot, so I exercise earlier in the day, usually first thing. I don’t love exercise in the morning, but that’s what works best when it’s 90 degrees at noon.



In the fall and winter, I have to chide myself to go outside. There’s nothing happening in the garden, other than a long list of chores that need to be done, and especially since the pandemic, friends and family aren’t having many indoor gatherings. I want to find the beauty in winter, and be comfortable with the colder temperatures (and let’s be honest here: I live in Tennessee, where it’s rarely below freezing during the day) but I’m still not there. I move my exercise to the afternoon, or in less virulent times, I go to the gym. I detest wearing layers of clothes and constantly cold toes and fingers make me cranky.

Knowing that the lack of sunshine and activity is going to affect my mental health, I’ve started focusing on projects that bring me joy and that are easier to do during the winter. I’m learning to quilt – all by hand – and find it a relaxing, fulfilling hobby. I read much more during the cold weather, and work on making my habitat more pleasant. I cook more and am always delighted to have some of the garden produce preserved. This year, I’m adding writing fiction back into the mix after neglecting it for a couple of anxiety-filled years.



One of the unexpected gifts of the pandemic was a focus on self-care during the winter. Going into the cold months of 2020 I challenged myself to find ways to enjoy being at home, and tried to embrace the idea of hygge. It worked, to some degree. I did much more decorating during the holidays, and wrote letters to friends and family I’d usually see. I printed and framed a bunch of family photos and made a big gallery wall that I love.



Even with all the activities and self care, I still found myself depressed by the end of January. This year, I’m going to try even harder to spend time outside to see if that helps. There are a couple of hikes that I want to do and I’m building a better cold weather wardrobe. I’ve returned to running after taking a year off, and that means being outside — oddly, I quite enjoy running in cooler weather, once I motivate myself to get out there — so hopefully that will help too.



I’m also trying to work about two hours a day more while it’s cold out. It seems reasonable to work a bit more when the garden isn’t calling me to come see what’s blooming. Plus, my work brings me great satisfaction and January is an excellent time for marketing.

Do you find your schedule changes significantly during the winter?

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Remembering Why I Am So Busy

6:30am – get up, feed all of the animals, start working on three articles that must be submitted to meet deadlines.

8:30 – wake husband, see him out the door

11:15 – admit that only one of the three articles will be ready to turn in, email editors to ask for one more day

11:45 – arrive at part time job in time to shove some food in before my shift

12-8:10 – work, work, work

8:30 – return home to cook dinner and try to wrap up at least one article

For some people, that would be an average Monday. For me, that’s a long day.

 

Lately, I’ve been busier than usual (you may have noticed the months-long hiatus from this blog). Most of the time, I’m careful to build down time into my schedule, but for the last couple of months, I’ve been booking myself completely solid. There are articles to write, a part time job to enjoy, marketing projects to complete…

Being especially busy can be good. It seems like my mind is sometimes more creative when my body is busy. But, if there’s no time to give that creativity an outlet, it just sits there. Finding the perfect (and elusive) balance between creative (usually non-paying) work and work that pays the bills can be difficult, but seems to me to be a worthy pursuit.

This summer, I want to help grow a giant garden, which means spending at least 4-5 hours a week weeding and shoveling and doing glorious physical labor outside. I also want to take a couple of short trips, go to a local amusement park, and spend some time in the woods. All of that means careful time management and the need for funding. It means working some long days so that I can enjoy time off.

I’ve also set a personal deadline: I will publish a novel-length work of fiction by July. I have a first draft, and have begun the second. But it is slow going between the paying work and the fun stuff. Writing a novel falls somewhere in between those two. It’s a big goal, and there are fun aspects, but it is also work.

With all of these goals, the idea of sacrifice has been on my mind. It’s pretty common to read that if you Business owners usually have to make sacrifices to run successful businesses — maybe give up some personal time in order to work longer hours. Novelists, especially ones who have other, paying jobs usually have to sacrifice some time to write. A goal I haven’t mentioned here yet is fitness, and a common thread among people who are very fit is that they spend time shopping, cooking, and working out. Time that could be spent building a business or writing a novel.

One of the most-often clicked on posts on this blog is about pursuing multiple goals. I wrote it several years ago. I’ve never been one to narrow my focus. At this point, it would be painful for me to put my novel aside or to decide to forego the garden this year. Those are the kinds of things that keep me from feeling burned out. Success in any one area spurs me more to reach the other goals as well.

Yet, some days I end up feeling tired and angry. Yesterday was like that. Looking back over what I did yesterday, there was no time to remember why I’m so busy. No time spent on my novel, or even in my flower garden. There was no time to exercise or nurture myself at all.

Is it better to have whole days spent off — writing novels or planting gardens or hiking — and then work long hours on other days? Maybe. Entire days dedicated to fun are important. But, weaving some fun into everyday is equally important. Even if it’s only 5 or 10 minutes, a little time to mentally unwind is a necessity.

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The Value of Unstructured Writing

When I think about the work that some other writers get done in a day – or what they say they get done – I am amazed. Flabbergasted. Especially when I compare my own work-related activities. Part of the problem is that I don’t really credit some of the writing I do as important. I’ve always tended to think of unstructured or unpaid writing as goofing off, but that is misleading and part of a mindset I’d rather let go of.

For instance, many mornings, or moments when I feel stumped, I spend time writing in a journal. Later that time feels wasted. Writing has always been the way I work through problems. It helps me think things through, and look at them a little more objectively. It calms me. So, sometimes, I journal about things that I’m worried about — a disagreement with my husband, feeling annoyed with my messy house, money, or any other of the approximately 2 million things people tend to worry about.

But there are other times that my journal entries serve as a starting point for blog posts and articles. It’s a place/time/way to tease out ideas and see if they are worth exploring or not. Sometimes I will reread past journal entries and find a single sentence or a paragraph that sparks another idea that turns into a new kind of marketing to test.

My “journal” is actually a document titled “Writing Exercises & Ideas” and it is a jumble of all kinds of things — often useful things. It’s where I end up noting points in other people’s work that intrigue me, or silently arguing with experts. It’s also where I play with ideas for fiction, and think about my professional life. There are some pro/con lists, and lists of things I want to learn, and entries where I just dream of what I want (sometimes it’s a description of me completing a marathon, or a description of what our house will look like when it is all finished, or a description of what I hope my career looks like in 15 or 20 years.)

Time spent thinking, dreaming, planning, deciding, and exploring is not time wasted. Changing how I view my own activities – acknowledging that writing in my journal is productive and useful – feels like an important shift. It all goes back to my personal narrative, which is an idea that has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now.

Are there any parts of your job that you feel vaguely guilty for doing, but that contribute to your overall productivity? Have you ever had to shift your thinking in order to realize that productivity? 

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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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An Introvert Learns to Love Collaboration

One of the things I had to do all the time in teacher school was work in a group. Words cannot adequately describe how much I detested group projects. I tried to always rig things so I had one friend in the group to make sure we could get all of the work done. It was almost a certainty that the other people in the group were going to be slackers. That may sound condescending, but I assure you, there were far too many late nights where I scrambled around trying to get things done that were supposed to have been done by other people.

The reason there were so many group projects assigned in teacher school is that we were learning how important and useful group projects would be for our students. I didn’t think (and still don’t) that putting kids who worried about getting everything just right in groups with kids who absolutely did not care was fair. The logic is that in the workplace, most work is group work and that students need to learn how to cope with the slackers. They are going to need that skill when they have jobs.

I don’t know about all that. My own experience in the workplace was almost as bad as my experience doing those much-hated group projects in teacher school.

After all of that, it is probably no surprise to learn that on the scale from introvert to extrovert, I land way over in introverted territory. That’s one of the reasons working at home is so appealing. Simply being around lots of people (as in an open office) drains my energy. And so I decided long ago that being a hermit could be the perfect lifestyle.

Then, I discovered the joys of collaboration.

It was accidental, this discovery. First, I found myself working as a collaborator with many of my clients. They would share their ideas, I would ask about their goals, then I would produce some copy, talk with them about changes they’d like to see, and finally come up with something they loved. We worked together – they gave me ideas, I gave them copy.

Then, I read about how Sean Platt and David Wright collaborate as writers. (I have just finished Season Two of Yesterday’s Gone, and highly recommend it!) While I have collaborated on lots of client work, it never occurred to me that it could work on a creative level as well. Their work is proof that it can, with the right combination of talent and personality.

Now, I am working with a partner on a new project, and it is going so well we have started a second project together. As it turns out, collaboration can be lots of fun and very productive, even for introverts – if you find someone you trust.

 

ps

If you are enjoying the Independent Writing Series, make sure to check back on Thursday, because there will be an interview with writer Joanna Penn! 

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