April Moore on Work Habits (Part 2)

Go To Your Room
If I had known how much I could have accomplished as a kid when my parents sent me to my room, I’d have
a seven-book series by now. Today, I treasure alone time in my room where instead of plotting revenge on my
sister, I actually get quality time to write. Claim your own space, whether it’s a room, a corner, or a table. Your
area should also consist of only what you need to write. Don’t work at a desk where you pay bills, or do other
hobbies. You need to focus on writing. My area is the guest bedroom. I found a small desk at a flea market,
painted it and parked it by the window. The closet, situated behind the desk, houses my weapons of writing:
reference books, research, and all those extra office supplies I stocked up on. (You can never have too many
Post-Its). Make the space inviting—but only to you. You need to be left alone, so politely inform your spouse,
your kids, and your dog (who’s holding the leash in his mouth) to not bother you while you are in this special
space of yours. I’m one of those who needs a change of scenery every once in a while, so sometimes I’ll work
in the sun room, out on the deck, or on the living room couch. But inevitably, I find that I’m most productive
when I go to my room.

Break it Down
I tend to freak myself out thinking about the amount of work I have ahead of me. Nothing like a bit of fear to
kill your motivation. I must remind myself to take baby steps. Luckily, Folsom’s 93 can be broken down into
roughly 93 steps. So, I tackle one at a time, sometimes two. If your project feels like deciphering the Dead Sea
Scrolls, then break it down. Work on one scroll at time—or half a scroll. Don’t put more pressure on yourself
than you need to. Shoot for a certain number of pages a day to get done. Maybe it’s one chapter at time, or one
article a day, or the introduction of your book proposal. You will feel more accomplished and productive if you
take on only what you can handle that day. When I applied this method, I had those scrolls deciphered in no
time.

Reward Yourself
What does your little heart desire? (Think small for this, okay?) Maybe it’s a new book, a nice bottle of wine,
or going to the theater to see a movie. Now, choose the task or project you need to do and set a deadline. When
you meet that deadline, reward yourself. I know this may sound simplistic, but it works. Yes, you could give
yourself the reward anyway, but show some willpower, because trust me, that reward is way less satisfying if
you truly didn’t earn it. Write your deadline and reward on a board or post it on the refrigerator to keep you
motivated. Get the family involved to help support you on your journey because it’s even more rewarding when
others can share it with you.

With a bit of creativity, it’s possible to be a productive writer without fleeing to deserted beach house, or a
lonely cabin in the mountains.

 

Thank you, April, for this great advice for us all. And thank you, readers, in advance, for checking out April’s project when you get the chance. 

Time Alone, Part Two

Last month I posted about a writer’s need to guard his time and work process against the viking-like ravages of family. I promised a follow-up post and here it is.

First, thank you to April and Sarah who commented to bring their own methods for securing work time for their writing. Sarah has combined the old standby of closing the door with a fiance who knows better than to open it when she’s working. April brought up another challenge of writing. It’s not securing the quiet work space for her — it’s making herself work when there is fun to be had or errands to finish.

Ray Bradbury, in his memoir Zen and the Art of Writing, tells a story that touches on both of these things. According to Mr. Bradbury, Farenheit 451 was literally a dime novel. He wrote it when his children were of grade-school age, during the summer. When his kids wanted him to play instead of work…he chose play every time. Who wouldn’t? So Mr. Bradbury went to the local library and wrote his masterpiece on coin-op typewriters that ran on dimes.

That’s one way to solve the problem — remove yourself from both temptation and interruption.

What works best for my family is communication and scheduling. Being a little bit OCD, my wife an I go over the schedule for our summer days each evening before bed. This includes blocks of time where I’m going to work — often coinciding with my wife taking the kids to the park, library or similar off-site event. When they are home, my oldest son knows only to interrupt if it’s urgent and Mom can’t help — and mom doesn’t mind snuggling the baby child during those hours.

I’ll be the first to admit that it took some time, training and a few tears to really get to the point where my wife learned that needing to work didn’t equal not loving her. But that’s another post altogether.

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.

Work From Home Dad: My Favorite Kind of Day

Saturday turned out to be my favorite kind of work day, the sort where I find myself at my most productive for the longest periods of time.

For me, that sort of day consists of blocks — about 45 to 60 minutes each — dedicated to a specific task, with consecutive blocks comprising very different kinds of work. An hour of writing might follow thirty minutes of yard work, and precede an hour of throwing a ball around with my older son. The blocks let me group like tasks so I’m not constantly interrupting myself, and the variety keeps me from getting bored. For the record, getting bored is probably the most serious threat to my personal productivity in any task.

The rest of my fam was out of town for Saturday, so I spent that day alternating between cleaning house, doing laundry, writing on assignments and exercise. By the end of a 10-hour “shift,” I’d completed more than that day’s goal for writing assignments, excavated the floor of the playroom and run three loads of towels, diapers and workout clothes.

It might be that this sort of schedule works for your. It might be that you’d find such rapid channel-switching means you feel like you stop just as you’re getting started. The important thing is to spend a little time thinking about how you work when you’re at your best.

Consider for a few minutes a few of those magic days you’ve had where you felt like you were on fire. You got everything done, ahead of schedule, and had time left over to hit the gym and make a nice dinner. And you weren’t even tired when you went to bed that night.

What did your schedule for those days look like? There’s a fair chance they looked pretty similar. If you plan your work to feel like those days, you’ll see your productivity explode.

One of the great joys – and most serious dangers – of working from home as a freelancer is you get to set your own schedule. Doing it wrong means spending too much time on tasks that don’t make the money that lets you keep staying at home. Doing it right means better productivity, more energy, more money and less stress.

Thanks for listening.