Train Hard and Be Inspired — to Write!

Readers email me from time to time, occasionally about my books and columns, but more often about writing in general. Most people are looking for advice on becoming a writer, specifically: “How can I be a writer?” and “How can I be a paid writer?”

To answer the first question, I defer to this bit of advice, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” This comes from writer Mary Heaton Vorse and was repeated by her student, Sinclair Lewis. Vorse reportedly hid Lewis’ shoes and pants on at least one occasion to assist him in this task. Writing is a solitary affair between you and your notebook, computer or whatever writing device you prefer. It’s not a team effort, and you have to spend a lot of time sitting in a chair, thinking hard and writing.

The answer to the second question is, just like any paid job, you have to look for writing work and apply for it. You need to create a resume, a LinkedIn profile, and hopefully have proof — education, experience or both — that you can provide to potential employers, showcasing your skills.

The question I never get is: “How can I be a good writer?” Most people believe they’re already good writers, just like they believe they’re good drivers. If you’ve driven around town, you know this claim isn’t always true.

How does anyone get good at anything? If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, you probably have a pretty good idea: you train, learn, and practice. You do it again and again and you study how other people do it, too. You read books about how to write and books written by great authors. You take classes and participate in workshops.

Here in Colorado Springs, resources abound for writer training and most of them are free. The Pikes Peak Library District hosts writing groups and activities like the Life Circle Writing Group, Journal Club, and 21st Century Writer’s Group. For Meetup groups, there’s the Colorado Springs Nonfiction Writer’s Group, the Colorado Springs Writers’ Workshop Group, and the Pen Drop Coffee Break Group. Finally, there’s the 2,000-member Pikes Peak Writers, a group that’s free to join and hosts a three-day conference every year.

I attended a couple of writers’ events this year. The first one was a free Non-fiction Writer’s Group critique at the East Library. Most of the people were writing memoirs, and they were all passionate about their work. My memoir projects are all ghostwriting gigs and I have confidentiality agreements with the subjects, so I had nothing to share. Still, it was good to hear what these Springs writers are working on and listen to their thoughtful critiques.

The next event was a free authors’ panel at the Rockrimmon Library. Local novelists Anne Eliot, Jennie Marts, and Mimi Foster shared stories about their work, answered questions and offered great advice. It was refreshing to hear such current and accurate guidance about the writing process and publishing. Afterward, they stayed to chat with anyone who had specific questions about their own writing projects. Listening to these women inspired me to dust off my notes for a fictional series I started seven years ago.

I have more events lined up, including a free March preview of the annual Pikes Peak Writers Conference and the Pikes Peak Library District’s annual Mountain of Authors Program in May, and I’ll probably check out more writing meetups.

I started this column with the goal of impressing the importance of training on would-be writers but uncovered something else: an expansive, city-wide writing community. And I discovered there’s more to becoming an exceptional writer than reading books and taking classes.

Those Olympic athletes train hard, but between performances, they retreat to their coaches and teams for inspiration and support. And just like the Olympic skating, skiing, and snowboarding I’ve been watching all month, great writing not only requires practice, it also requires feedback and guidance from other writers. Colorado Springs is known for its Olympic athletes, but maybe our city should be known for its Olympic writers, too — the people who generously share their experience and knowledge to help others write more and write better. They may not have medals, but their willingness to support aspiring writers is world class.

This blog first appeared as a column in the February 28, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

The Work-From-Home Survival Guide

When I got promoted to a work-from-home job a few years ago, I felt like I’d won the lottery. What? I don’t have to come into the office anymore? No commute? No cubicle? Not even a schedule? For me, an extreme introvert, it was a dream come true! Little did I know at the time that working from home came with its own challenges, but over the past three and a half years, I think I’ve finally got this thing figured out.

The first thing I discovered was that “work from home” is not the same thing as “home from work.” You are still at work. The only difference is that you’re physically located in your own home for the duration of the workday, instead of an office, cubicle, or shop.

The second thing I learned is that “working remotely” isn’t the same thing as “remotely working.” You have to have your butt in a chair for eight hours a day or longer, and you have to be doing actual work — providing a service or creating a product — that someone values enough to pay you money for.

Seriously, if you’re considering a work-from-home job and you can just get those two things straight in your head, you’ll be on your way to a successful career (and you won’t even have to put on pants).

I learned a lot of other things, and they’ve helped me keep my career going. I should let you know upfront that I got laid off from that first work-from-home job after a year and half, but I had another one within two weeks. These days, there are a lot of jobs out there that you can do in your own home office. If you don’t believe me, go to a job site like Indeed or Monster and search for “work-from-home” or “remote” jobs.

I should also let you know that I quit that second job after four months to be a full-time freelancer. There’s that much freelance work out there, too, for anyone who’s motivated enough to find it.

So here’s what else I learned, my best advice if you’re thinking of making a go of it working from home:

  • Have a nice workspace. It should be clean, quiet, and comfortable, with good lighting and dependable high-speed internet. If it’s too cold, get a space heater. If it’s too warm, get an evaporative cooler. When you work from home, you don’t have to heat or cool the entire house – just the space you’re occupying to get your work done, and you’ll get more work done if you like the space you’re in.
  • Have a schedule that reflects your normal work schedule. It doesn’t have to be 8 to 5, but your day should start sometime in the morning and end sometime in the early evening, with a midday break for lunch, the gym, errands, and whatever else you want to do in the middle of the day. You can even throw in a load of laundry, if you like! I use my midday break to go for a run, hike, or climb, and then I shower, eat lunch, load the dishwasher, balance my checkbook, and pay the bills. You can knock out a lot of stuff in a two-hour break. What, a two-hour break? Yes, when you work from home, you get a two-hour break instead of just an hour. That extra hour is the time you’d usually be sitting in your car during the before- and after-work commute. Nice bonus, eh?
  • Start every day with a plan. You might have left your Outlook calendar back at the office, but you still need a calendar in your home office. Get in the habit of scheduling blocks of time to get things done. I keep a running online calendar of meetings and appointments in Google (which is free) and a paper calendar on my desk for all the details. I update them at the end of every workday. That way, I don’t spend the next morning – my most productive time for getting work done – trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. Also, I sometimes have early morning client calls, as early as 6 a.m., and so I need to remind myself of those the night before, so I don’t miss them!
  • Get rid of all the distractions. No Facebook or Twitter, and you had better not think for a minute that it’s okay to have a television in your home office. When you work from home, you don’t have to answer the door or your cell phone, or respond to every text message or email that pops up – unless it’s a client, then you absolutely do. Seriously, behave the same way you would behave at work, because you are at work!
  • Track your time. The first couple of weeks I worked from home, I couldn’t believe how busy I was. It was exhausting. The funny thing was, I didn’t seem to be getting a lot accomplished. One day I started tracking my time. I kept a running list of the time I started working and the time I stopped because of a distraction. In that eight-hour workday, I had worked – and actually created something that I was going to get paid for – for one hour. Yes, one whole hour. Where did the other seven hours go? Phone calls, email, social media, and snacks. Oh, and there was a really good episode on Dr. Phil. Now I track my time from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and I put in a solid eight hours of work every single day. There are apps for this (and if you work for an employer that wants you to use them, then use them!), or you can use a good old-fashioned notepad. At the end of each day, I roll all my time into an Excel workbook with a different worksheet for each project, so I know how much time I spent on each one.
  • If you’re a freelancer, make time for lead generation, marketing, sales, invoicing, collections, and customer communication. This is part of your eight-hour workday, and nobody pays you for this time, but you have to do these things to stay in business.
  • Keep good food in the house so you don’t have to go out to eat every day, which is time-consuming, expensive, and usually not healthy. My kitchen is stocked with vegan lunch meats and cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains…and Oreos.
  • Go out to lunch sparingly and use that time to catch up with friends. Once a month or once a week is plenty. Hook up with other work-from-home people and have lunch with them every once in a while on your two-hour break. If you don’t have any freelance friends or work-from-homies, find some on a Meetup group, or start your own group.
  • Don’t eat at your desk. I can’t tell you how many times, when I was working in an office, I looked around my desk for a “missing sandwich” only to find a pile of crumbs and realize that I’d already eaten it. Do one thing at a time, and don’t work while you’re eating or eat while you’re working. Food is awesome. Enjoy it (on your two-hour break).
  • Get up every hour. Prolonged sitting is bad for you. When you’re in an office, you do this without thinking about it to go to meetings, the breakroom, or the printer. In your home office, you have to make yourself stand up and move. Get up for five minutes and run up and down the stairs, lift some free weights, or do something else to get the blood flowing. Then grab a big glass of water to take back to your desk with you, and get to work – you’re still on the clock.
  • Get outside. There are lots of other people in your neighborhood who work from home and if you get out in the middle of the day you’ll see them everywhere: stay-at-home moms and dads playing with their kids at the park, freelancers running the trails, and people with online jobs who just need a little fresh air. If you can get in a twenty-minute walk or run, you’ll come back to your desk feeling a lot better. This counts as part of your two-hour break, by the way.
  • If you’ve been doing the math, you’re probably wondering where that other two hours went. When you work twelve hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two-hour midday break, trust me, you will still only work for eight hours. The other two hours will be lost on meals, exercise breaks, snack breaks, and phone calls from family or friends. That’s why you have to track your time. You need to make sure you’re actually working for eight hours.

That’s a lot, right? Working from home might not be for you. In fact, when I taught human resources for an online college (a fantastic work-from-home job, if you get in with the right school), I read about a survey of employees who had been allowed to work from home for six months. Half of them asked to come back to the office. Sound crazy? It’s not. There are people who prefer the social environment, or they like getting dressed up, or they like having a more rigid schedule and someone like a manager telling them what to do. If that’s you, that’s cool, too. But if you want to work from home, learn from my mistakes and do it right the first time.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 28, 2017, Woodmen Edition.