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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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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Just about anyone who has undertaken some sort of creative endeavor can tell you about the walls that you discover. If you want to bust through those walls, and be “epic” there are plenty of posts that will encourage and motivate you. That’s not what this is, though. I’ve stumbled across a few walls lately, but instead of busting through them, I’ve been sneaking around them, or struggling to climb over them. I have not had the pleasure yet of busting through anything.

While everyone else has been feverishly writing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I have been participating in a different, and much smaller writing group. Several months ago, a friend and I were talking about how we both wanted to try writing fiction. We each write professionally – she as a technical writer, I as a copywriter – but neither of us had ever seriously attempted to write fiction beyond a creative writing class in college. There was an invisible wall stopping us.

We both have notebooks filled with observations and ideas, but nothing solid. We were stuck behind a wall when it came to actually writing a story. Talking usually helps when you are trying to get past a

Sometimes you’d rather sit down and rest than to try and get past the wall.

wall, so we just chatted about it. As we talked about the different elements of story-telling, we decided it would be fun and useful to take an online creative writing class. We started looking at all of the free ones available, but none of them included what I consider an essential element: writing. That first wall to writing a novel loomed as large as ever.

To get past it, we decided to put together our own creative writing class, and started carving a path around the wall.

Writing groups have been around forever. There’s one in my town that meets at a great bar every Tuesday night. It’s probably a good group, but I’ve never gone. Going would mean I had to get dressed and leave my house. Also, going to a bar every Tuesday would be expensive – the cost of fuel and beer…Anyway, for someone who is almost a hermit, going out to a critique group feels onerous, and presents what for me, is an insurmountable wall.

My friend, let’s call her Debbie, and I made a list of the topics we would expect to be covered in our dream creative writing class. We decided it wouldn’t too burdensome to research and present on a couple of the topics each and that a seminar-style class would be interesting. Debbie and I found three other people willing to join in the experiment, and here’s how it works:

  • We are making heavy use of Google.
    • We have a circle on Google+ where we post random thoughts, comments about topics, or whatever.
    • Google Docs allows us to share all sorts of things. For instance, a day or two before presenting his findings, the person who researched Point of View shared a document with a list of links and his thoughts about each one. In turn, other members of the group asked questions and left comments that the presenter responded to during our meeting.
    • Google Hangouts (within Google+) is what really makes all of this possible. We “meet” in a Hangout once a week.
  • While it’s not a requirement, most of the people in the group are using participation as a catalyst to work on a writing project. The week we talked about plotting, a few of us wrote out a plot for a story.
  • The group provides accountability, structure, a place to bounce ideas around, and will hopefully result in some stories being written.

We are only in our third week of meetings, but so far, it seems to be working pretty well. During our first meeting, we hammered out a list of topics, and people chose which ones they wanted to research and talk about, then we decided who would present the next week. The topic for the second meeting was plotting, which I talked about, and the group discussed in a very general way. We were all planning to share a basic plot line during the third meeting, but circumstances dictated otherwise. (People are busy, it’s a weird time of year, and stuff happens. It’s all right.)

Point of view was the topic of the third Hangout. And BOOM! We hit another wall.

When you are telling a story to a group of friends about yourself, you naturally use first person. You’ve probably been around someone who used third person to talk about themselves at some point, and you probably thought they were weird. When you tell a story about someone else, you naturally use third person (limited, to your own view, of course) because to do otherwise would be strange. Most of the books we read for pleasure are written in what is known as third person omniscient. There is also a POV called second person, but it’s weird and difficult to read.

Anyway, if you are a writer, and you start thinking about all of this stuff, it can act as the biggest, scariest, barbed-wire encased wall in the world. It just stops you cold. You get all tangled up in the technical details of writing. This is a wall we are just going to have to climb over. There’s no path around it, because this wall is the actual telling of the story. As a writer, you need to understand point of view, but you still have to tell a story.

One way to get strong enough to climb over the wall is to play with point of view: write the same scene from different characters’ perspectives. Write it in first person, then third person limited, then third person omniscient. If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. You are climbing over a big, gnarly wall. That’s never easy.

I’m sure that there will be many more walls between now and when I’m writing a post to tell you that my first work of fiction is available on Amazon. But, I’m equally sure that those walls can be avoided, climbed over, or maybe even busted through.

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Something Exciting for Me and Something Free for You

It’s no secret that I am really interested in self publication, and since I’m a writer, it’s no stretch to imagine it’s because I want to write and self publish a book someday. And that is the case. In fact, I’ve written a book. It’s not a cool, sexy book about my life or vampires or anything really interesting like that. Instead, it’s a book for people who run businesses but hate to market, and just sort of fumble along, doing a little here and a little there to market their businesses. (People who are very much like me.)

The book is set up so that you get a tip each week, that should only take an hour or two to put into place. The idea is that if you just spend one to three hours a week marketing, you will eventually develop a solid plan that generates good results for your business. It doesn’t have to be painful, and it doesn’t have to exhaust you. You don’t even have to do anything big or extravagant, as sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference to your marketing strategy. Someone I know has recently customized her own sunglasses, with the help of a place like Imprint, to help raise awareness for her business when she goes to trade shows and business events. You can learn more here – She uses them as freebies, and everyone needs a pair of sunglasses, right? But that’s what I mean. Something this simple can create the same level of results.

There are lots of tips that involve testing things, because not every marketing strategy will work for every business, or every personality, or every audience. You might be delighted to find that in-person networking is not a good strategy for you, or if you hate writing, you might be happy to see that blogging generates little in the way of results for what you do. The tips guide you through figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

It’s funny that I’ve written a book detailing exactly how to do something I am not very good at doing for myself. It was almost like writing a marketing plan for Smiling Tree Writing, or like writing down everything I have learned in steps that wouldn’t be hard for someone even as lazy as me to take.

Now that the time to publish and market the book is getting so very close, I should probably start implementing the tips to sell the book. Isn’t that an odd notion? I will use the tips that are for sale in order to sell those tips. It’s like some kind of weird brain teaser.

Of course, the fact that I’ve written a book is exciting for me, but why should YOU care? Well, I came up with a few extra tips, and I’m going to be sharing them with folks who are interested in free marketing advice. If you’d like to get the freebies, just sign up for my newsletter. I promise not to spam you, or sell your email address, or send you an email a day. I’m lazy, remember? Hopefully you will smile a little and possibly learn a little, and if you find that is not the case, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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How To Banish Blogger Angst Forever

I haven’t posted here since April 12. That’s almost a full month. If I were my own client I would advise posting “at least every other week, minimum, and once a week would be much better.” But, if you suffer from blogger angst, you know that it’s a vicious cycle – the longer between posts, the more you worry about NOT posting and the harder it becomes to sit down and write something. Well, it’s easy to write something, but it’s hard to write something you think is worth publishing.

Then, you check your calendar and it’s been a month! Yikes! The pressure is on! You must publish a post!

I’m a believer in the benefits of procrastination. Sometimes we really do just need to slow down and give our mental processes time to do their thing. However, it can go too far. Like when you wait a month between posting on your blog.

Since I am pretty much an expert at identifying when I have crossed the line between “taking a mental break” and “becoming a total slacker” I feel comfortable offering some tips:

Take advantage of the times your mind is fertile. There are days when I think of about 15 blog post topics. If I can capture a few notes about each one, I have a start on some posts. Better yet, if I can sit still and write them out fully, I’ll have stockpile. Days like that can’t be scheduled in, but there are some things you can do to increase the likelihood of them occurring.

Boost your creativity. The easiest way to do this is to give yourself little challenges. No matter what you are doing, try to think of some way that it could connect to the theme of your blog. How is a road trip like what you write about? Are your kids’ activities in any way like what you write about? Is there a current trend in your city that you can relate to what you write about? The more you stretch to make these connections, the easier finding them will become. Of course, you won’t always end up with a post you can use doing these kinds of mental challenges, but sometimes you will.

Write at least a little, even when you don’t want to.This is just another way to say “keep showing up.” You don’t have to publish what you write, but you really should write on the days you think you are supposed to be writing. You can’t write just whatever for this one to work. Writing just a sentence or two of a post or editing an old post or making some notes for a future post is fine, but journaling about something totally unrelated to your blog will not help you overcome blogger angst.

Publish it anyway. Don’t let excuses stop you. It doesn’t matter if you can’t find a suitable photo to illustrate what you’ve written, or if you aren’t quite satisfied with it. Sometimes, you have to just let it go and publish it anyway to avoid being stuck forever. If most of your posts have all of the elements that are important to you, that’s what’s important. You may even find that a not-quite-finished thought resonates with your readers, or that a good photo is extraneous to what you are doing.

How do you overcome blogger angst? What makes it worse? Please share, because, to be honest, I’m still feeling a little angst-ey.

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Admission: I Am Afraid

This morning, as my oatmeal cooked, I decided what the topic of this post would be. Then I ate my oatmeal, checked my RSS feed, left comments on 5 or 10 blogs, considered setting up a new folder for local blogs I’ve started following, fed my birds, had a cup of coffee, stared at the screen a minute, recorded the oatmeal in my daily nutrition tracker…

I’ve written about procrastination before. Clearly, it is something that I deal with regularly. Sometimes, it’s okay – even helpful – to put things off. Other times, we do it out of fear, or laziness, or simply because we dread doing whatever the task is. In the case of writing this post, I was probably putting it off because the idea wasn’t a very good one, or at least it wasn’t a full idea. It was something that should go into the idea file.

Procrastination, though, is a topic I could write about for days on end due to my long experience with it. Right now, for instance, I am not only putting off writing this post, but something else as well:

Several years ago, I had a job as a telemarketer. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds – we were only calling licensed insurance agents, and we weren’t actually selling anything. We told them about products or job offers, and set up times for someone else to call and give them more details. But I made hundreds of calls a day – 300 calls a day wasn’t unusual. And mostly, people didn’t answer. Very few people returned calls when we left messages, so we rarely left them. It was mostly dialing and listening to ringing. Somedays it was a struggle to stay awake. We should have made the most of something like ringless voicemail messages which can be very successful if done right.

For a few months, I shared an office with just one other person. She tended toward depression, so sometimes I would tell her stories to distract her from sad thoughts, while we listened to the phones ring. Eventually I was moved into a room with 8 or 10 other people in it, and without the entertainment of telling stories, I had to work to stay awake again. So I started writing a story. I wrote on scraps of paper that I kept under my keyboard, in tiny handwriting. I decided I kind of liked the story, and dug all those scraps out of my bag took them home, and typed them up.

Then I got fired from the telemarketer job. (It was a crazy place. LOTS of people got fired from there.) And I stopped working on the story.

I kept thinking that I “should” work on it some more. It liked it more than any other fiction I’d ever written. I let a couple of kids read it (it is a kids’ story) and they liked it. One of them even occasionally asks me if I’ve written anymore of it yet. But it just sat there, in a file on my desktop. After a year or two, it seemed to be taunting me, so I moved it off of the desktop, where I couldn’t see it anymore. But it still crossed my mind regularly.

A few months ago, I decided to read it and see if I still liked it. I did. It’s fairly unusual for me to read something I wrote a few years earlier and still like it. So, I put the dang thing back where I see it. I even printed it out and put it in my backpack so that I can work on it when I find myself in a waiting room or at lunch alone.

Almost immediately, within a week of re-reading it, I had about 12 new ideas for other stories I wanted to write.

(My organizer friend is going to tell me I should have written them down, filed them away and come back to them when I finished the kids’ story. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what I should do.)

I did write them all down, and file them all away. Then I started writing one of them. Now, I have two unfinished projects that I really love chattering in my head, bugging me to work on them. “Write us!” they say every night while I’m trying to raise my high score on Bejeweled Blitz. So far, I have successfully ignored them.

In this case, I don’t think I can say that either of these stories just needs time to “ferment” in my head. One of them has been doing that for about five years now, and the other o

ne just pours out when I work on it. The words don’t get to the page fast enough to suit my brain. So, yeah, the need to let my unconsciousness work its creative magic cannot be my excuse.

Because I firmly believe that we all have plenty of time to do the things we want to do, I cannot say that I’m too busy to work on these projects. Because I (and you!) can find time to work on the things we love. Bejeweled Blitz, anyone? My high score is over 300,000 in one minute…

That leaves fear. What will I do with these things once I feel they are “finished”? What if they are not particularly good? What if I take all the risks to my ego and send them to agents, or publishers, orwhoever (I really don’t even know who I would send them to) and get – gasp! – rejected? Would that make me feel sad? I don’t like to feel sad. Maybe I should just go ahead and delete those stories and forget about writing them. It’s too scary.

All of those questions, all of that fear is bullshit. It’s ridiculous and silly and unworthy. If a friend told me they felt that way, I’d tell them to quit being stupid and write the stories, stop borrowing tomorrow’s troubles, and figure out what to do with them when they are finished. Start spending an afternoon a week working on them. Or a half hour a day. Whatever, just write, and stop worrying.

Why is it so hard to take your own advice?

Do you have a project you love so much you are afraid to work on it? Do you just buckle down and get it done, or do you give yourself mind-candy to numb your brain and silence your creativity?

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