Accountability

This week was a big, steaming brown pile from an accountability standpoint.

Instead of working on writing goals, I built some furniture with my son, visited with old friends from out of town and cleaned the living bajeezus out of my back yard and garage.

I did manage to meet my basic moneymaking goals, to post on this blog and work on an ongoing speculative project I plan to launch soon. I also finished off a larger assignment and took two meetings on another project I might become embroiled in.

I should have scheduled this week as a week off — I knew ahead of time how hard it would be to get everything done. That way I’d feel pretty okay about meeting my plan instead of vaguely uptight with myself for slacking off.

Ah well — the best part of screwing up is that you get to try again.

Thanks for listening.

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More Accountability

Alert readers know that I’ve made the following weekly commitments to myself for my productivity this summer.

6 “Units” of paid writing, 5 Acts of Marketing, 4 Blog “Packages”, 3 Proposals, 2 Administrative sessions and 1 Education module. The partridge and pear tree were optional, based on time. 

This week was challenging in terms of accountability. School’s out, so my oldest boy and wife are home. It’s hard to resist the temptation to play and enjoy them. I didn’t always succeed, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I did get up early on Saturday and churn out 7 hours of productivity, but it wasn’t quite enough to meet my goals. As it was, this week’s final tally was:  (bold type indicates success)

  • 6 completed units of paid work 
  • 3 acts of marketing
  • 4 blog packages completed
  • 1 proposal
  • 2 administrative sessions
  • 1 education module
I have trouble with proposals more than anything else. They’re the most abstract, and seem the like I get the least concrete reward for the work. or maybe I procrastinate out of fear of failure. I’d love to hear what others do to keep themselves up on that sort of work.
Thanks for being here to keep me keeping myself honest. And, as always…
Thanks for listening.

More Accountability

Hi all,

After a week of research and reporting — and looking at my position in relationship to my goals, I’ve decided to go with a pyramid structure for my writing. I’m organizing it weekly to give myself maximum flexibility. It’s summer, and my wife is a public school teacher. We tend to get out a lot with them all out of school, so a daily routine won’t work. My overall plan for this summer includes the following broad-stroke goals:

  • I need to meet quotas on my bread-and-butter web content assignments. It’s my main source of income, and will fund the wild excesses I plan to spoil my family with.
  • I want to grow this blog, and plan to launch a total of three more by summer’s end, and to begin transitioning myself out of primarily doing content work and into long-form articles and books.
  • I must continue to market my work, and network with colleagues, editors and industry insiders.
  • I need to keep myself sharp by continuing to educate myself and remain informed about what’s going on in the industry and the world.
The trouble with these is that they’re all ongoing projects. None have an end in sight that lends itself to simple timeline. That’s why I’m adopting a pyramid approach to accountability — they’re ideal for assigning yourself sufficient progress on continuing work.  So, in front of y’all I do solemnly swear to do my damnedest to meet the following goals every week. Some weeks I’ll fail. Other’s I’ll exceed them. So long as I stay near those benchmarks, I should do all right. Every week, I will complete:
  1. Education Module — a unit of reading or other research that keeps me up. I might read a magazine or magazine, listen to a relevant podcast or complete some kind of training program.
  2. Admin Sessions — including keeping up with email, tweaking blogs, sending invoices, writing letters and strategic planning.
  3. Blog “Packages” — “package” is loosely defined. For this blog, it’s a week’s worth of posts. The new ones I’ve divided into chunks of similar startup work.
  4. Proposals — of magazine articles, other long-form articles, or significant work on book proposals.
  5. Acts of Marketing — a phrase I learned from Tom Callos. This can be anything I do that builds my readership and brand. This includes applying for new assignments.
  6. Units of Paid Content Writing — I’ve defined a “unit” as a specific amount of money earned. This will be enough to make my nut.
I want to thank you all in advance for being out there and keeping me on track. It’s surprising how much the possibility of public humiliation can motivate.
And, as always, thanks for listening.

Goal Setting: HOKBIC

For some writers, the hardest part of establishing productivity is making yourself sit down and actually write. You have chores to do, kids to play with, email to check, books to read. It feels like every time you have a great idea for a story or project, you never get around to actually putting it on paper — or entering into the word processor.

If you’re this kind of writer, you might get good mileage out of setting your goals according to HOKBIC time:

  • Hands
  • On
  • Keyboard
  • Butt
  • In
  • Chair
More than one successful author wrote a breakout novel by getting up one hour early or going to bed one hour late. They didn’t worry about how much they wrote or how much money they made — just on setting aside time to write, and writing during that time. If you write for one hour every day for a year, you will have produced a sizable book by the end of that time.
How much HOKBIC time you need depends on your situation as a writer. If you write as a hobby, you probably won’t need an aggressive goal. If you write part-time as an adjunct to a full-time job, you don’t need HOKBIC time…but you should give yourself several hours each week if you want to ever transition to writing as your full time living. Professional writers should set their HOKBIC goals based on how rapidly they work, and how much they need to get done to make their deadlines and financial goals.
You can also apply this kind of dedicated work time to the other tasks surrounding writing. For example, a 10-hour work day might consist of 4 hours of writing, 2 of promotion and marketing, 2 of rewriting, 1 of bookkeeping and 1 of “pencil tapping” to sketch new projects.
Like any other goal, it’s usually better to set your HOKBIC time goals by the week. “Five hours each week” is better than “One hour every work day.” Although it’s the same amount of time, the weekly goal is less likely to fail. Every week will have at least one day that conspires to keep you from meeting your goal…but if you phrase it weekly, you have a chance to catch up by week’s end.
Thanks for listening.

Professional Bathroom

I visited with friends at Munchkin Playland today. It’s a franchise operation: fancy coffee shop with play areas for babies and toddlers. Just the place for soccer moms. Decent coffee. Slightly higher prices than it’s worth, but not so much higher that I won’t pay it.

The bathrooms impressed me. Scrupulously clean, clearly thought out with a baby/toddler crowd in mind. Professional-looking labels. All the tools you’d need to change a baby or guide a youngster new to the whole potty process. The bathroom had a system, and the owners were using it.

This is how franchises work. A functional system takes the guessing out of the scut work of running a business — leaving more time and energy from growing the business itself.

As writers, we can benefit from having our own systems. Writing is a creative process, and many of us have images of long writing binges in a garret apartment, drinking absinthe and mourning a lost love. The free-wheeling, flexible lifestyle of a professional writer is part of what drew many of us to the field. I know one reason I do it is so I can be home with my children and never have to apologize for going to a 3PM soccer game.

However.

The more systems you put in place around your writing and your career, the better your chances of making a decent living at it over the long haul. This can be as detailed as a daily schedule in 15-minute increments, or as loose as a monthly income goal. Whatever you need to keep yourself on schedule to reach not just your immediate financial needs, but also your long-term idea of where you want your career to go.

A few of my systems include:

  • Weekly earnings goals, with accountability provided by my blog.
  • Specific time slots where I write without fail.
  • A 5-4-3-2-1 structure of marketing tasks. (More on the 5-1 in another post).
  • Keeping an event schedule months in advance, so I know when to earn extra for times I won’t work.
Since I consider my job to be freelance writer/work-from-home dad, I have similar systems for keeping the house clean and taking care of the kids.
Some people object to systems because they think they’ll be restraining. If you approach them the right way, the exact opposite is true. Systems make sure you get everything done. This means that when you have time off, you can enjoy it fully. You won’t spend any of your free hours worrying about your career. It’s like going on a budget. If you know you’ve accounted for all your expenses, you can spend that extra $20 without feeling guilty.
Thanks for listening.

Ideas for Nonfiction Writing (Part One)

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This question is normally associated with fiction writers. I think it’s Harlan Ellison who tells people that he subscribes to an idea service. Coming up with ideas for nonfiction articles is just an important, and in some ways harder. The nonfiction article market is enormous — and growing every day with the proliferation of internet content. All we need to do is come up with compelling pitches. Here are some of the methods I’ve used to get ideas and turn them into money. I’ll bring more to your attention in a later post, since this is a rich topic I could write about all day.

Plumbing Knowledge and Experience

Everybody is an expert at something. I got my start writing self-defense and safety articles as an adjunct to running a karate studio. I sold insurance for a while, and recently did the math to discover I’ve made more money writing about insurance than I did selling it. Industry and special interest publications are the best market for these, especially if you can apply your special knowledge to a related interest. I’m a middle-sized fish in the martial arts pond, which means I had to fight to get my stuff in Black Belt. Parenting magazines, on the other hand, eat my family safety stuff up. This may be the best way to break in to the writing market, since you’re selling your existing expertise rather than asking somebody to take a chance on a thin portfolio.

Mind Mapping

This is the shotgun approach to idea generation. Start by writing a word at the center of a piece of paper. Draw branches off that word, each with a detail or related subject. Draw further branches off each of those branches, filling the page with words and concepts. Some of them will remain words, while others will blossom into full story ideas. This is the method I use for blog subjects. It works well for general brainstorming, and for expanding on basic areas of expertise or interest.

Pre-Orders

Some ideas come to you prepackaged. The freelance writing job sites (more on these in another post) rarely have ads for general writing. Rather, they have ads for somebody to write about a specific — sometimes very specific — topic. The current boom of content mills is based on writers accepting prepackaged writing assignments based on common search engine queries. Small business owners want blogs written to topics that interest potential clients. If you’re a quick researcher, this is an opportunity for nearly limitless work at a pretty good wage.

I’m eager to hear your ideas, as well. Please comment with some tricks you’ve tried.

Thanks for listening.


Time Alone, Part One

Virginia Woolf said that a woman needs “a room of her own.” This is true of writers, too, but you don’t need your own office. Our house is pretty big, but I share it with my wife, two children, two housemates, a dog and two cats. My “office” is literally a recycled cubicle set up in our living room. No door, but the walls form a kind of symbolic barrier. It also helps that, during the day, the house is empty except for myself and our baby son — who is kind enough to sleep for four to six hours of my work day.

With summer coming up, I’m going to need a new plan. As much as my family tries to respect my writing time, it’s hard for them to leave me out of what’s going on. It’s equally hard for me to want to be left out. Last summer, my wife — who is a public school teacher — would take the kids to the park during my work day to give me the time I need. We might do that again this summer, or I might move my computer into the bedroom and close the door for a few hours each day.

The point is that writers, like everybody else, perform better when we are allowed to focus. Tapping away at your laptop in the middle of a busy family evening isn’t conducive to focus. Neither is working at the local library. We all have our own flow style and work habits, but everybody needs some time for uninterrupted writing.

I’m curious: for those of you who write at home, what sorts of things do you do to ensure that “you time” to get your work done? I’ll answer with some of my other methods in a couple of days, but I don’t want to muddy the waters with my opinions until I hear from some of you.

Folks who read this, but aren’t writers, I’m interested to hear how you secure time for yourself when it’s at a premium — either at home or at work.

Thanks for listening.