Weekend Edition – The Secret Truth About Writing

Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty, 2003

Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty, 2003

In the summer of 2007 my fourteen-year marriage was limping toward what would turn out to be a less-than-amicable divorce. I split my days between denial, mild panic attacks, and desperately trying to figure out what I would do to support myself and my three-year-old daughter. At the same time, my paternal grandmother passed away. After months of being in and out of rehab for various illnesses related to diabetes, she spent the end of her life in a hospice facility. I was there the day she died. We were not close, but she was the first family member I’d lost since I’d been grown-up enough to really understand what was happening. Only a few, brief hours before she passed, my Korean grandmother had gripped my hand in hers and told me earnestly that she was ready to take charge of her life now.

In the midst of all these big, traumatic events in my little world, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. The release of a shiny new piece of technology may not seem, at first glance, to have much to do with death and divorce; but that sleek device captured my imagination and quickly became the focus of a not entirely rational obsession.

With so many aspects of my life spinning out of control, the iPhone seemed to be an almost magical key to the life of order and control that I so desperately wanted.

··• )o( •··

On the day of the release, my daughter and I queued up outside the local Apple store along with hundreds of other shoppers who were eager to get their hands on this technological wonder. It took us three hours to gain entry into the bustling, white-on-white interior where Apple staff were delivering beautifully packaged new iPhones into the hands of customers who were as anxious and excited as expectant  parents.

Luckily for me, my mom and dad arrived to entertain my daughter just as she was beginning to lose patience with my constant admonitions about touching things and standing still. As my parents whisked her off to a less constrained environment, I finally took receipt of my own embossed box and the device that I was certain would give me all the tools I needed to organize, manage, and reinvent my life. I was ready, like my recently deceased grandmother, to take charge.

··• )o( •··

My ex-husband will tell you that I’m a control freak, though – from where I’m standing – my “managerial” tendencies pale in comparison to those of his current wife. I will admit, however, to having Type-A personality traits and maybe even a touch of OCD. These characteristics make me more susceptible than the average person to the allure of devices, software, and procedural practices that promise superhuman speed and efficiency. I have been known to swoon upon discovering a new piece of software or iPhone app. As a writer, I sometimes worry that my fascination with technology and systems might compromise my creative spark; but I’ve also come to accept that this is who I am.

As you’ve probably already guessed, that first iPhone did not give me the ability to effortlessly transform my life into a well-ordered, Zen-like existence. Neither did any of next three iPhones that I purchased.  Nevertheless, my love for Apple’s crown jewel remains undiminished. I’ve just had to learn to temper my expectations. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I have a more realistic sense of what an iPhone can and cannot do to improve my life.

··• )o( •··

I’m starting to learn a similar lesson about writing.

For all it’s creative and inspirational glory, writing is, at it’s core, an act of control. As writers, we create worlds, characters, and the plots that send our characters careening through our worlds on adventures of love and discovery, triumph and tragedy. We manipulate words into sentences and sentences into stories, controlling what our readers see, hear, smell, and feel. Writers are, in a sense, the gods of our own realities.

Writing is also a way to exert control over our own lives and emotions. The process of writing grounds us, offering solace and comfort through the ritual of regular practice and the relief of cathartic release. Writing gives us a set of powerful tools with which we can plumb the depths of our own feelings, attempt to make some sense of the world around us, and even reshape perceptions – ours and those of others.

Ultimately, writing is a bid not only for control of the here and now, but also for a certain kind of immortality. Like any artist, the writer seeks to create something that will live on after its creator is long gone. It’s not enough, apparently, to control the creation of alternate realities, our emotions, and perceptions. Writing also strives to control time itself by allowing the author’s voice to time travel across years or even centuries to whisper its story into the hearts and minds of new readers living in another era.

··• )o( •··

I don’t pass any judgments on the controlling nature of writing. It is neither good nor bad; it just is. Mostly, it makes me laugh to think how long it’s taken me to figure this truth out.

I’m also learning to laugh at the futility of any effort to control life. I’m finally old enough to realize that even if we do everything we’re supposed to, life always gets the last word. There are no guarantees. There are no silver bullets. There are, however, plenty of plot twists. Even the best laid plans can go awry, and even the perfectly planned story can turn out differently than you expected.

I haven’t yet fully grasped the nature of the relationship between life and writing. I don’t know if I ever will, and that’s okay. For now, I’m just grateful that writing is such an important part of my life. Though I can acknowledge that the control it gives me is only an illusion, I can’t think of a worthier or more lovely illusion to pursue.

A story can cast a spell, but writing is not a magic wand. Words have undeniable power, but they are only a reflection of life, not the real thing. If you can recognize the distinction and still write with joy and enthusiasm, you’re on the right track.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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First Quarter Review

A photo from Living in Place

A photo from Living in Place

As the first quarter of the year comes to a close, it’s time to review where I am with the three goals I set at the start of the year while I’m between books: launching my blog, increasing my work-for-pay, and completing some necessary administrative tasks.

I’ve been very successful meeting the first two goals, posting to Living In Place every Wednesday, placing my column about The Middle Ages in The Rutland Herald, and generally writing, publishing and expanding my state-wide and on-line audience with essays.

Then, while I was still thinking about contacting my former editors for

Traditional Ax Skills Class at Doe Camp. [photo by Deborah Lee Luskin for EasternSlopes.com]

Traditional Ax Skills Class at Doe Camp. [photo by Deborah Lee Luskin for EasternSlopes.com]

paying work, they contacted me. I just returned from one of my most fun assignments ever, attending Doe Camp for an online magazine I haven’t written for in three years. I’ve also completed other pen-for-hire work, which is satisfying both for telling other people’s stories and for boosting my bank account.

It’s the third goal, completing the administrative tasks, where I’m stuck. With the first quarter of the year nearly ended, I need to examine what’s made me stall and what I need to do to shift back into first gear.

I set three significant administrative goals. Of these, I’ve completed one: creating a better system for paying bills and tracking both my business and household accounts. The job of reorganization didn’t take nearly as long as I expected, and it has streamlined the bi-weekly tasks of accounting, bill-paying and staying on budget. Just acknowledging this outcome helps motivate me to advance the other two tasks: create a current curriculum vitae (CV) and bring my clip files up-to-date.

A CV is an expanded resume used in academic circles. It lists all professional positions held, all publications, professional associations, and public service. When complete, a CV can run up to twenty-five pages, though it’s not always submitted in its entirety.

The beauty of a CV, especially for someone like me who is not on a traditional academic career path, is that it can be easily edited to emphasize one’s strengths for a specific job.

I started gathering the information for my CV back in January, and listed all my publications through 2010, so I’m now only five years out of date.

I have to organize my papers, which I don’t seem to have filed for the last five years.

I have to organize my papers, which I don’t seem to have filed for the last five years.

I have stalled on listing all the different courses I’ve taught, and all the public speaking I’ve done. In part, because I’m stuck in one of those chicken-versus-egg conundrums: In order to update my publications and teaching credits, I have to organize my papers, which I don’t seem to have filed for the last five years.

When I think about these projects in their totality, I’m paralyzed with fear. Where do I start? How do I proceed?

It’s the same place I am with two book projects starting to percolate in my head.

But I know how to write a book: one word at a time. Words become sentences, sentences paragraphs, sections, and chapters until I’ve created an entire imaginary world.

And there’s my answer: chip away a little at a time, whether it be filing and documenting my professional life or writing character sketches for a new novel.

Just as I allow myself to write freely to start and revise as the arc of a story becomes clear, so I can allow myself to simply list my achievements and revise them as the logical order of presentation becomes clear.

As I know from experience, big goals are achieved with small steps. It’s consistency that serves inspiration and achievement, both in creativity and in ordinary tasks.

As the first quarter of the year draws to an end, which of your goals are you successfully working towards? If you have stalled, what do you need to do to restart?

 

Holidays can be great for productivity

Christmas is on Wednesday. Smack in the middle of the week. So, not a very productive week on the surface, right?

Many people scramble to keep up with work, holiday shopping, and plans to participate in family and other holiday events.

It can be stressful.

But if you plan for it, the holidays can also be a great time to be productive in your business. Honest.

I find the last two weeks of December to be my most productive of the year. If I’m organized at the start of the month, everything can be accomplished before Christmas.

December is the one month that I schedule the first 3 weeks in detail (instead of a week-by-week approach I take the rest of the year).

Seeing everything that needs to be done written out early on keeps the stress to a minimum.

Lists, tasks, goals, and the success journal are front-and-center to help, of course, but I also implement another visual tool.

I use a full-size monthly wall calendar for holiday-related tasks and use post-it flags for to identify the tasks. Holiday shopping, groceries, sending out Christmas cards, phone calls to family, attending events — all of these have colored flags and are stuck to the applicable day in December. 

Not the best pic, but example with 'flags'

Not the best pic, but example with ‘flags’

The green flags are tasks that can be easily moved (if need be); dark pinks (since I don’t have red) are the events that most likely won’t change; yellows are tasks I can do at home; and orange flags represent the miscellany that involve scheduling/pre-planning.

If an errand can’t be done on one day because of weather, it can easily be moved to another day. If I don’t get to a yellow task on one day, I move it to another.

Knowing I’ll have downtime during the last 2 weeks of the month is motivating. I don’t want any flags on my calendar after Dec 24.

This year, Dec 26-Jan 3 will be quiet workwise since deadlines fell on Dec 20th and most people won’t get back into the swing of things until the first full week of January.

I’ll be spending the ‘quiet’ days wrapping up year-end paperwork, clearing the desk, and getting ready for business to open on Jan 4th.

If you run your own writing (or any) business, you can’t stop working just because the holidays come along. But you can enjoy the holidays and get your work done, too. I takes a little proactive planning (that’s redundant, but makes my point), but it’s well worth the effort.

Next week, my post will be summarizing my 2013 year and giving you a glimpse into my 2014 plans. I’m quite excited about what’s coming up, since this year… oh, wait, that’s for next week!

Have you had experience planning out December in order to enjoy some ‘downtime’ at the end of the month?

I wish you a productive end of the year!

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

Get that “one thing” done today — move forward

We’ve talked more than once about having business goals written down so you know how to get where you want to be with your professional writing career.

blankplannerThese are yearly goals broken down into monthly goals, then into weekly goals, and eventually down to a daily task list. The idea is to keep yourself, and your business, moving forward.

I do my weekly planning on Sunday nights, so when I start Monday I know exactly what to start working on. Worst case is that I do this planning on Monday mornings, and best case is that I do the planning Friday night so I can have the weekend off!

I digress. I’m guessing that I’m not alone in having at least “one thing” on the list that is carried over from week to week too many times. It’s “one thing” that should be done to move the business forward, but it seems easier to keep putting it off — for some reason.

Do your reasons (excuses) sound like any of these:

  • Ugh, that requires a phone call, it’s too early/mid-morning/lunch/afternoon break time/too late, all I’ll be doing is leaving voicemail. I’ll call tomorrow.
  • I’ll do it after I do this, this, and this.
  • The holiday is coming up, I’ll wait until after so the email doesn’t get lost in the overflowing Inbox.
  • I’m not in the right frame of mind for that today.
  • I need to let it simmer in my head for a few more hours.

Whatever the “one thing” is, it’s not something we cross off the list — we know it has to get done, so we keep moving it forward, again and again and again.

Today is Monday, it’s after a holiday, let’s call it a fresh start. I’m going to do my “one thing” (log last quarter’s income & expenses – Jul/Aug/Sep) and be done with it so I can keep my business moving forward. How about you?

Before you do anything else, do that “one thing.” 

Don’t over think it — just get it done.

Happy Monday! I wish you a productive week!

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

Follow your path… even if there are detours

I sometimes worry and second-guess myself when it comes to my writing and business goals. Do you?

Time spent worrying is wasted, absolutely wasted. Yet, sometimes, it’s difficult to see the goal if there are turns and bumps along the way.

Park benchIsn’t it so easy to take a time out, sit off to the side, and ponder and question which next steps and actions will be the best?

Here’s a secret: we don’t need each step we take toward our goal be ‘the best’. We just need to take the next step and get it done, so that we can then take the step after that.

Detours can, and will, pop up.

But here’s a key: detours (as is their definition) lead back to the original path, so they aren’t bad! We will get where we’re going.

So, even though it may not seem like it at times, more often than not, even with doubts and detours, we’re still headed toward the end zone and we’ll reach it eventually.

When I have doubts about my progress, I pull out the ‘map’ (list of goals and tasks) I have to my destination, review it, and get back ‘on the road’ if I’ve discovered I’ve wandered off a bit.

I had to do that today, in fact. And when reviewing my overall goals, I discovered I’m further along than I imagined. It’s quite a motivator!

I hope if you find yourself struggling with reaching your ultimate goals, that you’ll allow yourself to look at where you are, and focus on the next item on the list instead of spending precious time worrying or doubting about what ‘should have’ been done.

With a clear objective in mind, you will end up where you want to be.

Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

Is being self-employed a good fit for you?

Perhaps you’re thinking about working for yourself. If that’s the case, you won’t be surprised to know there are a few things to think about.

Here are some topics to consider:

  • Commute — Only having to walk to your desk/office can be a great money and time saver. (I love not having to deal with ‘rush hour’ any more.)
  • Flexibility — You’re able to set your own schedule to work when you’re most productive (for me it’s late morning, so I do ‘tasks’ when my brain doesn’t need to be fully engaged and I can schedule errands when traffic is light); you get to wear what you want (some days it’s just easier to go from bed to desk without a shower).
  • Distractions — No matter where you work, there are distractions, but working for yourself gives you the power to control them a lot easier than if you’re in an office surrounded by coworkers.
  • Relationships — Working for yourself isn’t conducive to building face-to-face relationships without some effort. Skype and web conference tools can be great for “meeting” in person without leaving your home, but be aware that you may not build as strong connections as working in an office. (Finding a great cafe or meeting space for local clients to meet with you is quite beneficial).
  • Stress — Working for yourself gives you a lot more control over stress. If something gets to be too much, you can talk a walk (or a run) or a break and come back refreshed without having to ask permission or have someone ‘cover’ for you.
  • Finances — Of course you can save money by not commuting, but if you have a home-based business, you can write off the office space on your taxes (at a minimum).
  • Work/life balance — When you’re in control of your own schedule, you’re able to balance work and life commitments a bit easier – or at least that’s the theory – sometimes family and friends will think since you work from home you have a lot of ‘free time’ so you have to set parameters.
  • Accountability — Working for someone else gives you accountability to that person. Working for yourself requires self-discipline, and not everyone can handle all the freedom. (I personally love it, and find deadlines with payments tied to them to be quite motivating.)

This is just a quick list to get you started. More categories and questions come up the further you pursue self-employment.

How about you? Are you self-employed? If you aren’t yet, do you think you can handle it?

Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes from the comfort of her home. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

Anatomy of a non-fiction book proposal

Last week’s post on the structure of a book proposal for a fiction series resulted in a few requests for the structure of a non-fiction book proposal. There are some similarities. The biggest differences are that you need to include a table of contents and your sample pages should *not* be your first chapter.

Here’s the breakdown (skeleton):

  • Overview – Your first challenge is to describe your book in 2-3 paragraphs (500 words or less). Include the title and subtitle; target audience; anticipated length of the manuscript; when you’ll have the manuscript complete; and what makes your book unique and worthwhile. –I’ve seen a suggestion to consider this the copy that appears on the back cover of the book, in a publisher’s catalog, or even as the brief review you’d see in Publishers Weekly or the NY Times Book Review. Think big, but be concise.
  • Target Audience – identify your core readers – those most likely to buy your book. Research the market and try to find some hard numbers to use to identify the market size. Also include tangential readers – those non-fiction readers who may be drawn to the subject matter of your book. (i.e. a lot of your book relates to horseback riding, so a potential market is a horse enthusiast)
  • About the Author – Talk about your credentials and experience. You want the agent/publisher to completely ‘get’ what makes you uniquely qualified to write and promote this book. You can also include social media and other platforms you are already established on in this section, or include it in the Marketing and Promotion section below.
  • Competitive Titles – This is a list summarizing those books and authors you see as major competitive/similar titles. Also include an explanation about why your book is different from each title you list. This section serves two purposes: you’re proving there’s an established audience who will find your book interesting and clearly showing how yours is different enough to compete with them.
  • Marketing and Promotion – Whether you have created/started your author platform already or not, this section needs a lot of content. In this section, explain your comprehensive plan for actively promoting your book and how publicity needs to be focused. List magazines and other media outlets that your target audience pays attention to and identify the outlets you (and your publisher) will focus on to get your book reviewed. Name people who will write blurbs for you (you’ll need them before your manuscript is completed). What are the topics and target outlets, based on the subject matter or your expertise, that will allow you to obtain speaking engagements? List types of groups and organizations that will be interested in having you speak. Identify portions of your book that can be excerpted in magazines and relevant journals; include up to 10 publications you feel will publish the excerpts. And don’t stop there! Include other promotional ideas you can pursue: speakers bureaus, hiring a publicist, getting on relevant mailing lists, leading/speaking at workshops, your book tour ideas, and whatever else you can think of.
  • Detailed Table of Contents – Don’t skimp in this section. Be very specific about summarizing every chapter. This section can range from 3 to 20 pages or more. The agent/publisher is looking for the details of what is inside your book. (I highlighted ‘detailed’ to emphasize that you don’t want to skimp here.)
  • Sample Chapters – Non-fiction agents and publishers generally don’t want your first chapters submitted as samples. They want a couple of chapters from inside the book that will give them a good snapshot of your writing style, the content, and the structure of the book.

Also, if your manuscript lends itself to images or artwork, you’ll want to include details about them – ie. whether you will supply all relevant images/art, whether you’ll need to obtain permission/licensing, whether it’ll be in color or b&w, and so on.

I hope this helps you as you start working on a non-fiction book proposal. If you discover anything else that should be included, please let us know!

Lisa J. Jackson Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys New England’s crisp fall mornings and warm sunny days. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Biznik.