How to Deal with Arthritis & RSI Pain as a Writer

(This is the second post in a series about how arthritis affects writers, and what we can do about it. TL;DR version: I’m doing a writing fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation and you should donate here if you want to read my next book sooner. Here’s the first post.)

Despite being such a sedentary job (or perhaps because of it), writing can wreak havoc on the body. There’s all the slouching, the mousing, the typing, the banging your head against the keyboard.

(That last one’s not just me, right?)

I’ve been thinking about the affect of joint pain a lot lately. Partly because I’m doing a fundraising bike ride for the Arthritis Foundation later this fall, and partly because bad work habits have got the repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my left wrist rearing its head again.

I’m hardly alone in dealing with pain at the computer, but I’ve definitely got it easy. In researching this post, I came across a number of writers working through some serious pain to create their art:

As part of this blog series on how arthritis and RSI affects writers, I’d like to offer some tips on managing pain — and preventing it in the first place.

I’ll leave any discussion of medical treatments to the doctors. That said, if you’re dealing with joint pain, definitely go talk to your doctor about it. As with most ailments, you’ll have more treatment options the earlier you get a diagnosis.

Note: I’m lumping RSI pain into this post not because it’s related to arthritis, but because I know quite a few authors who deal with it (including myself). Plus, many of the home treatments are the same.

Workstation ergonomics for managing arthritis and RSI pain

Bad computer posture is the root of all evil, folks. From slouching over too-low computer screens to typing at ridiculous angles, non-ergonomic computer use forces your body to contort into painful angles for hours.

For a good primer, check out this post from Arthritis-Health.com. They recommend optimizing your mouse, keyboard, chair, and — of course — your laptop height.

There are a trillion laptop stands out there, but the one I got was the Roost. I love that it’s portable, and that it fits easily both on top of my dresser (aka my standing desk) and on my regular desk. Because my workspace is in our bedroom, I always tidy everything up at the end of the day. The Roost folds up in seconds.

Jessie's ergonomic desk setup
The Roost in action.

Keyboard ergonomics are also important for alleviating pain. Check out this post from the Wirecutter for a comprehensive review of the most comfortable ergonomic keyboards.

(In the end, they recommend the Microsoft Sculpt Ergo.)

Get away from the computer

As the owner of a writing business, it feels like I’m glued to my laptop. I can make things as ergo as possible, but the fact remains that sitting (or standing) for hours staring at a screen and typing words onto a keyboard is dangerous.

So I’m constantly devising ways to get away from the computer.

I use dictation to give my hands a break. It can be annoying at times, but I’ve really gotten the hang of it. (You can read about my dictation journey here.) Along with dictating directly into the computer, I also regularly dictate first drafts of blog posts and scenes while taking walks around the neighborhood.

I just fire up the Dragon Dictate app on my phone and wander through the streets saying things like “Open quote I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse comma close quote said the cap Don period.”

Sometimes people look at me funny, but at least I’m getting exercise.

If dictation isn’t your thing, be sure to take frequent breaks for stretching. This fabulous article from Outdoor Magazine shows you how.

Treatments and pain relief

There is no known cure for arthritis, which is why the work of the Arthritis Foundation is so important. (Donate!). Most treatments for arthritis are aimed at early recognition and prevention.

I can’t speak to arthritis treatments personally, but here are the main things I’ve tried for RSI, ranked in the most effective order. Again, your best bet is to get a diagnosis from a doctor rather than taking the advice of a sci-fi writer on the internet.

  • Myofascial Release — This has done me the most good. My wrist always hurt waaaay worse the next day, but then the pain would be substantially better for weeks.
  • Physical Therapy — This was helpful at the time, but when my insurance ran out I couldn’t afford the treatments any longer. Once I had insurance again I was already loving the myofascial release therapy, so I haven’t been back recently.
  • Acupuncture — I’m not sure it has ever helped with the pain, but I do really enjoy laying quietly while soothing music plays.

Heat and ice are some of the best ways I’ve found to ease aching at home. When I went through physical therapy, my favorite treatment was the heated sand bath. The therapist would bury my arm in sand up to my elbow. I was supposed to flex and stretch through the sand in order to exercise the tendons, but the exercise was secondary to me. The heat was a divine way to ease the pain.

I’ve also heard people recommend heated mice and keyboard wrist pads, though I haven’t personally tried this route yet.

Are you a writer dealing with arthritis or RSI pain? What tips do you have to offer?

Do you want to see a cure for arthritis? Donate to the Arthritis Foundation today. For each $1 I raise, I’ll write 20 words in your honor. I’ll also list you in the honor roll in my next novel.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Stop Self-Sabotage: Dreaming Big in Small Ways

(This post about dreaming big is part of my weekly Monday Morning Blast-Off email series. To get emails like this in your inbox every Monday morning, head here.)

Happy Monday!

Every week, I send out the Monday Morning Blast Off email to a really cool group of folks who want to boost their creative productivity.

Last week I asked people to tell me what some of their shoot-for-the-moon dreams were, and I got some really lovely responses — everything from having a quiet writing retreat to being a radical agent of change in the last years before retirement.

My point was that if we truly believe in those crazy big goals, we will set our daily goals to reflect that.

But I realized that dreaming big isn’t just about big picture goals.

We need to dream big about the small things, too.

And I’m terrible at it.

Dreaming big about zombies

I have a tendency to half-ass marketing my books. I figure if people find the book and like it, that’s great. But, like, I don’t want to annoy people by shouting about it!

I’m telling myself it’s because I want to focus on writing the next thing — but the real reason is because I’m afraid of watching a project bomb.

I don’t actually believe it could be a success, so I lie and tell myself I don’t care if it’s successful. And so I don’t put in the effort to make it happen.

And so it bombs. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m working on a sort of weird short story collection about zombies and corporate communication that I want to release this summer, and I’ve falling into that trap. Thinking it’s just, you know, this little book. Maybe somebody will like it. Maybe not. But whatever, I’ll just toss it up on Amazon and see.

But this week I realized that it could actually have a lot of potential to get picked up by niche media outlets, and promoted by big industry names. And if I truly believe in it, I need to double down on marketing to give it the best shot of going viral.

I can either shrug and “leave it to fate,” or I can work up the guts to email big-name people for blurbs, pitch it to major sites, pay for advertising, and ask for help from people with bigger audiences than me.

And, dammit, that’s what I’m going to do.

Because how can I expect myself to achieve big dreams if I’m scared to set big goals for small dreams?

Your homework

Do you have any passion projects that — let’s face it — you’re letting die because of lack of faith in yourself?

Ask yourself why. Is it because you’re afraid of putting 110% in and still failing to make a mark, like I am? Are you worried what others might think about it? Do you think it’s just not that important?

Now ask yourself what steps you’d have to take to ensure that project has a chance to shine.

You’re putting in the work. Don’t be afraid to push it across the finish line with all your strength.

You’ve got this.

Now tell me: what one thing are you going to do this week to help your project reach its full potential?


(If you’re curious about the weird zombie/corporate short story collection, one of the pieces that’s going in it was recently published on McSweeney’s. Check it out!)

Time Management Triage for Freelance Writers

Let’s talk about time management.

Last week in the Monday Morning Blast-Off newsletter, I asked subscribers to pay attention to where their willpower flagged throughout the week. When did they have trouble making good decisions? When did they have trouble focusing — really focusing — on the work at hand?

The thing is, we all have a finite amount of willpower.

It depletes with each decision we make — which is why tech tycoons famously wear the exact same shirt day in and day out.

(I like to change up my clothes, but I do eat the same thing for breakfast every day, order the same thing a the coffee shop, and run the same old route over and over.)

If you have fewer things to make a decision about, you have more willpower stored up for other decisions.

Like saying no to the Girl Scouts, or choosing salad over fries. Like skipping that third glass of wine. Like turning off Netflix and writing that novel.

And, as Manoush Zomorodi explores in this Note To Self podcast, willpower depletion is why we find ourselves scrolling mindlessly through our phones at the end of an exhausting day.

So what can you (and I!) do about it?

Know thyself….

Knowledge is the first step to figuring out your time management peaks and valleys. For the past few weeks I’ve been tracking my time using Laura Vanderkam’s worksheets*, so I’m getting familiar with myself.

Painfully familiar, guys.

Here’s a quick snapshot of my week. I color-coded each category to make it easy to see at a glance when I’ve been productive, and where I’m all over the place. When I see blocks of time that change color every 15 minutes, for example, I know I’m jumping around rather than working deeply.

Time management spreadsheet #1Time management worksheet #2

Looking back at last week, I can see that I struggle in the afternoons, particularly near the end of the week. I was practically worthless on Thursday and Friday.

I also had three interviews this week. Two were in the morning, which threw off my normal writing schedule, but one was on Friday afternoon when I was already barely doing work.

(Sewing is not work.)

The biggest thing I notice is that I’m mixing too many things at once.

Ironically, two of the interviews were for the creative time management book I’m working on, and both parties mentioned how they compartmentalize their time to keep from having unproductive schedules that look like mine.

The singer/songwriter duo I spoke with said they never work on business and songwriting on the same days, because it’s too hard to make the switch between the two.

Tell me about it.

I’m slicing my days into ribbons of time — no wonder I’m feeling so scattered!

(* By the way, if you haven’t read Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, it’s very worth it.)

Use your knowledge

I’m not discovering a new bug in my system here — I’ve been saying I’m going fix this aspect of my time management for ages.

That I’m going to stop letting all aspects of my life bleed together.

That I’m going to put hard edges on my tasks.

That I’m going to set aside certain days for fiction, and certain days for specific freelance projects.

Have I done it? Obviously not.

It’s time to tackle this chaos.

When I look at my time management charts, I notice five main places where I majorly lose willpower. Each of those should be fixable through basic scheduling.

Here’s my time management triage plan

1. Checking email first thing often derails my priorities.

Currently, my Freedom app is set to block email through 8am — when I’m normally just getting to my desk. I changed it to block email through 9am. By then I should be deep at work on something, and less likely to get derailed.

Probably I should block it until noon — but that’s terrifying. We’ll work up to it.

2. Research and rough drafting scatter my brain.

I realize that I’m wasting valuable Deep Writing time by working on rough drafts and research in the mornings.

Instead, I plan to take time the afternoon before I write (whether fiction or freelance work) to sketch out a rough draft and collect research. That will let me use the next morning’s writing session for deeper work.

3. I’m nervous before interviews, so I have trouble focusing on a big task.

There’s not a lot of point in scheduling a writing session in the hour before an interview. Instead, I’ll use that time for less focus-oriented tasks. I’ll also schedule 30 minutes before each interview for prep — mental, physical, and subject-wise.

4. Lately, I tend deal with email/bills/fires as they come in. This derails me.

Because I’ve been so frazzled lately, it’s more satisfying to check off a bill as it comes across my desk or an email as it pops up in my inbox —rather than batching like tasks to do all at once.

(Which would be waaay more efficient.)

Instead, I’m going to schedule an hour on Friday afternoons to deal with accumulated paperwork, bills, and other household management stuff. I have a dedicated file on my desk for paperwork, and I added a tab to my Gmail inbox called “To Process,” where I’ll file those types of emails.

For emails that need to be responded to more immediately, I’ll plan on processing email at lunch and at the end of the day, rather than responding throughout the day.

(I’ll make an exception for emails that require a quick response — I’m mainly talking about off-topic ones that aren’t high priority.)

To do this, I’m going to close my Gmail tab (GASP!) and only opening it when I’m actively checking email.

5. Staying up late affects my ability to dive into work in the mornings.

Go to bed earlier, Jessie. C’mon.

Time management triage — what’s your story?

That’s my plan to boost my productivity and decrease my chaos brain this week. How about you? Have you ever done a time management triage report to figure out where your biggest problems are? What did you learn?

I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.

(Cover photo by Katarzyna Kos via Unsplash.)

4 Tips to Help You Get a Grip on Your Freelance Taxes

You won’t be surprised to learn I’ve been thinking about money a lot lately — what with that whole freelance taxes thing looming next month. If you’re just sorting through your first batch of 1099s, this can be a nerve-racking time.

It’s cool. Take a deep breath. I’m here to help.

First up, my lawyers recommend that I tell you I’m a sci-fi writer/content marketer and not a tax professional. (You probably won’t be surprised by this.) The upside is that I’ve come up with a system that works well for my creative-business brain, and isn’t mired in tax-professionalese.

Here’s how I manage my freelance taxes.

1. Plan for freelance taxes

This may seem self-explanatory — after all, everyone knows they have to pay taxes, right? But if you’re just getting into freelancing, it’s actually a pretty different concept.

When you get a W-2 paycheck, your employer pays taxes on your behalf. When you’re a 1099 contractor, the responsibility for prepaying taxes falls on you. If you don’t make estimated quarterly payments — or don’t make large enough estimated payments — you’ll be charged a penalty at the end of the year. Oops.

(If you live in a state that charges taxes, be sure to make quarterly payments to them, too.)

The other thing is that when you’re self-employed, you get to pay self-employment tax on your income.

What’s self-employment tax? Basically, every worker pays taxes for Social Security and Medicare. But when you get a W-2 paycheck, your employer picks up half the bill. As a self-employed person, you get to pick up the whole 15.3% tax.

DO THIS:

Along with making quarterly payments, set aside a portion of every payment you get into a special tax savings account so you don’t get caught empty-handed on April 15.

I put 1/3 of every check into a separate savings account, out of which I pay my final taxes. Anything left is a buffer that helps me not get so stressed out during lean times.

(Want to learn how to manage your freelance income ebb-and-flow? I wrote about my freelance finances on The Write Life.)

2. Keep good records

The great thing about running your own freelance business is that you can write off all sorts of things related to your business. Things like conferences and courses, for sure, but also things like home office, internet, and a new laptop.

Oh, and books and going to the movies if they are relevant to your work. Renting The Untouchables and Goodfellas on Amazon Prime is totally research for my gangsters-in-space Durga System series.

For a good primer on what you can and can’t deduct, check out this post from Nation1099.

The ability to write things off is fun. What’s not so much fun it’s pouring through a shoebox full of receipts trying to figure out how much you spent on what.

Please. Don’t do that yourself.

DO THIS:

The smarter way to organize your expenses is with an accounting program. For several years, I used FreshBooks to send out invoices and organizing. For 2017, I switched over to QuickBooks because I restructured my business to be an S-Corp (more later) and my awesome tax lady told me to. Check out their business expense page which helps you easily track your expenses throughout the year in order to get every deduction at tax time.

FreshBooks is a lot more intuitive for the newbie, but QuickBooks seems like it will be much more powerful. If you’re working with an accountant, ask what they prefer to work with. If not, play around and see what you like.

Both programs automatically import your expenses from your bank accounts and PayPal, so all you have to do his check them on occasion and make sure are categorized correctly. I do this a couple times a month.

Because these programs made it so easy (and because I perversely like doing my taxes), I actually turned in all my paperwork to my accountant in February, and signed off on the final tax forms in early March. (Don’t hate me.)

3. Rethink your freelance business structure

This year I ended up making a lot more than I did the year before. (Yay!) Which meant that I got to pay way more taxes than I was expecting to. (…yay?)

One thing that should help avoid that in the future is changing my business structure from a sole proprietor to an S-Corp.

According to my awesome tax lady, there’s a sweet spot where registering as an S-Corp saves you money. How it works is this: Basically, instead of treating all of your 1099 income as personal income, this classification lets you treat all that income as business profit, out of which you pay yourself a salary. Therefore you only have to pay self-employment tax on what you actually pay yourself.

Neat, huh?

DO THIS:

This tip won’t help you for 2016 taxes, but if you think you’re going to make more than part-time wages as a freelancer in 2017, talk to a tax pro about reclassifying.

4. Work with a pro

I used the pride myself on being able to do my own taxes — it’s really not that hard, and I do actually like numbers and spreadsheets. (In small doses.)

But for the last couple years, between my husband’s sales jobs, home ownership, and my freelance taxes, we finally decided to hire a professional.

It’s amazing.

I give her raw papers and she spins them into tax returns, complete with finicky deductions I never would have known to take.

It’s such a relief to have someone who is able to advise you about what kind of deductions you can take, how to structure your finances, when you should change your business structure, and all those other confusing money questions.

DO THIS:

Again, if you want to make your writing business work for real, invest in your business by hiring a pro to do your taxes. You’ll get back at least that much in tax savings!

Try to find somebody who specializes in working with freelancers, if you can, and don’t be afraid to ask them all the questions. They’re there for you.


I hope that helps! And happy accounting, everyone. May your tax days be filled with chocolates and rainbows.

Breathe In, Breathe Out — And Retake Control of Your Life

There’s this thing I’ve been hearing a lot from creative friends over the last few weeks. It goes something like: “I’m trying to get back to work, but I just can’t focus with everything that’s going on in the world.”

(Mostly there are a lot more swear words.)

If you’re in that boat lately — whatever the reason — you’re not alone.

I feel you.

I don’t have the solution to all the world’s problems, (sorry), but I do have some ideas for blocking out the chaos and getting your own work done.

Because as much as there is a time for engagement and advocacy, your creative contributions are still critical to the world.

This month, each Monday Morning Blast-Off — my weekly newsletter for productive creative folks — will have a different tip for regaining your focus and getting back to work. I decided to post this series on my blog, too, because hey. We could all use some advice here.

Ready to reclaim your brain?

Tip #1: Meditation.

Disclaimer: I used to roll my eyes when productivity gurus inevitably included meditation in their lists of tips. I mean, seriously, sitting still for a few minutes feels nice, but you know what feels better?

Getting actual stuff done.

But these productivity gurus wouldn’t shut up about it.

And I finally tried it.

And my mind bounced all over the place like a ping-pong ball being chased by a caffeinated Aussie shepherd.

And I did not feel any better.

Despite hating meditation, I kept trying it off and on. I eventually downloaded an app called Calm, which has a variety of guided meditations. (I know other people love a different app, Headspace.)

I started meditating more regularly, and after a while I noticed that not only was I getting better at letting go of thoughts while actually meditating — I was better at calming myself down and refocusing my mind during the rest of the day.

  • When I want to be present for my work.
  • When I want to be present for my husband, or for a friend.
  • When I want to let go of the anger and frustration and anxiety surrounding me.

That is to say, my mind isn’t any less prone to ping-ponging — I’ve just gotten better at letting extraneous thoughts go and coming back to what’s important.

A little bit better, at least.

Here’s a metaphor I like from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves. Consider, for example: a magician who cuts his body into many parts and places each part in a different region — hands in the south, arms in the east, legs in the north, and then by some miraculous power lets forth a cry which reassembles whole every part of his body. Mindfulness is like that — it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.

(From The Miracle of Mindfulness.)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt like your mind has been cut in a million different parts, each part in a different region.

And raise your hand again if you want to learn how to reassemble your mind on cue.

The point of all this is that I’ve now become one of those people who won’t shut up about how you should try meditation.

Sorry.

Anywho, try it and let me know how it goes, will you?

Your Homework (you guessed it):

Try meditating this week — even if it’s for only two minutes a day.

I like to meditate first thing in the morning before my brain gets too buzzy, but pick a time that works for you.

If you’re new to meditation, I’d definitely recommend going through Calm’s free 7 Days of Calm starter session.

Whatever you do, keep engaging with the world, but don’t let it hijack your ability to do your most important work.

And if you want a little kick of creative productivity every Monday morning, don’t forget to sign up for the Monday Morning Blast-Off newsletter.

What are you doing to block out the chaos and get your work done? Let me know in the comments.  

(Cover photo by Sayan Nath via Unsplash)

Kick Analysis Paralysis to the Curb

I’ve struggled with analysis paralysis for years. Should I be cold calling new clients, or working on my novel? Should I be blogging, or working on my book launch? Should I be pitching guest posts to sites my clients read, or pitching my novel to review bloggers?

It was excruciating! No matter what I was doing, I felt like I should be doing something else. Plus, at any given point I had a half-dozen creative projects I was halfway working on. I was totally overwhelmed.

(Sound familiar?)

But over the past few months, I’ve discovered an easy(er) way to help me choose what needs to happen in any given day.

It’s all about identifying the One Thing you can do to achieve your overall goals. The One Thing to Rule Them All.

(Sorry.) 

You might hear this referred to as the Most Important Task, or Most Important Thing (MIT).

I discovered that because my business essentially is content-driven, my One Thing is creating content: if I’m not writing novels, blog posts, and books that contribute to my body of work, I’m on the wrong track.

On any given day, my priorities suddenly become crystal clear.

Sounds simple, right? But it’s amazing how many people (myself included) operate without their One Thing clearly defined.

Why one thing?

I can already hear you saying wait up, Jessie, I have way more than one thing that’s most important to my business. Can’t I pick a half-dozen priorities?

(The voice in my head is saying the exact same thing.)

In response, I invite you to think about that sentence for a minute. The word prioritydidn’t even have a plural form until sometime in the 1900s — it simply meant “the thing that came before other things.”

By default, you could only have one priority!

Of course, word meanings and dictionary definitions change over time. But even though the English language now allows us to have priorities, forcing yourself into restrictive thinking helps you come up with stronger solutions.

In a recent podcast, Ed Gandia talks about this principle. In his list of questions to ask himself during his yearly review, he includes “What would I spend my time on if I was forced to spend only two hours a week on my business?”

Clearly, you can’t get much done in two hours a week. But if that’s all you had, you’d be forced to choose the most impactful tasks, rather than noodling away your time on non-critical things.

Right?

That’s why I’m asking you to get seriously brutal with your priorities and pick the One Single Thing that will make the biggest impact this year.

What’s yours?

It can shift over time — it might not always be to create new work. It might be to hone your skills. Write that business book. Get a degree. Build your network. Land awesome assignments. Start a nonprofit. Pivot yourself to a new market. Develop a new course. Solve a pressing societal problem.

Whatever it is, let it be your number one priority. Let it guide you when you choose what tasks to prioritize today, and what obligations to say yes to tomorrow.

Have you always been guided by your One Thing? Or are you still warming to the concept? Let me know in the comments.

Ready to tame the chaos in your life so you can get your best creative work done? Sign up for the Monday Morning Blast-Off. Each week I’ll send you one quick, actionable tip to help you start the week off right.

(Originally published on LinkedIn.)

(Cover photo by Evan Dennis, via Unsplash)

What I Learned in My Third Year of Freelance Writing

Welcome to my annual review post, where I’m taking a look back at 2016 to see how I make a living writing. Read about Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

It’s hard to believe I just finished up my third full year as a freelance writer. Every year has been a little different — and every year has gotten me that much closer to where I want to be in my business and life.

I like doing these end of year posts — in part because they help tie a nice, tidy ribbon around the year, and in part because they help me see how much I’ve grown.

I’ve spotted a theme in each of my last few years of freelancing:

  • My first year was about growth — saying yes to everything and growing as fast as I can.
  • My second year was about refining my niche and focusing my efforts.
  • My third year has been about finding balance between my freelance business and my life.

Balance? Yeah, balance.

I just reviewed my 2016 goals post in my freelance accountability group, and one year ago I was thinking a lot about work-life balance.

I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with client work and unhappy with the amount of fiction I’d produced. (It didn’t help that my husband had just started a new job and working long hours himself.)

One year ago I needed to find a better balance — not just for me, but for both of us.

I’m happy to say that while I’m not 100 percent to where I want us to be, we’ve made huge gains. After two full years of working almost every weekend, I now take weekends off. I never work on client work in the evenings anymore, and mostly don’t write fiction in the evenings, either.

Two main focuses helped me get here: better-paying clients and smarter time management.

Finding better paying clients

The first part of the equation was to clean up my client list, attract better-paying clients, and switch to projects where I can better manage my time and energy.

For example, in 2015, 25% of my income mostly came from blogging. At the peak, I had blog post deadlines at least once per day — and sometimes as many as two or three per day. No surprise I had a hard time arranging my schedule to accommodate more time for writing fiction.

Now, the majority of my income comes from larger projects like e-books, white papers, and website content. These pay better, and have deadlines that allow me to organize my work week more efficiently.

(I’m not trying to imply that blogging is entry-level and new freelancers should aspire to move past it. It’s just that for me, the constant deadlines interfered with my need to have more solid blocks of time for deep fiction work.)

Smarter time management

Over the last year, I’ve become much better at organizing my time and avoiding distractions.

  • I’ve increased my focus and willpower.
  • I’ve used tools like Stay Focused and Freedom to shut off distractions.
  • I’ve said no to more things.
  • I’ve started using dictation to dictate faster first drafts.

But the biggest thing? Taking back my mornings.

I’ve wasted a lot of time in the past by letting anger, frustration, and despair at the news hijack my energy first thing in the day. Or by letting random emails hijack my day’s priorities. So in 2016 I started a practice of avoiding social media, news, and email in the mornings.

Instead:

  • I now try to start my day with meditation, exercise, and 30 minutes of fiction writing.
  • I stopped listening to NPR while I make breakfast, and started listening to podcasts instead.
  • I’ve found my willpower isn’t strong enough to keep me off email and Facebook, so I installed Freedom and set up a recurring block session from 6-9am every morning.
blowing bubbles with the kids
Pictorial evidence that I take time off to blow bubbles with my sisters kids sometimes.

I’ve spent so much time over the last year trying to tweak my creativity and productivity that I’m starting a new weekly newsletter to share my insights: the Monday Morning Blast-Off.

If your productivity needs a kick in the pants every Monday morning, sign up here.


Client analysis

I do a client analysis at the end of every year to help me figure out who and what I’m spending time on so I can tweak that in the year to come. I won’t be throwing out specific numbers or names, but I’ll be as transparent as possible about how I’m making money.

Again, my goal in writing these “Year-in-review” posts is to give newer freelancers who want to make a living writing a practical look at the way someone a couple steps ahead is earning an income.

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email!

How I make a living writing

When I left my desk job three years ago, I crossed my fingers and hoped I’d be able to replace my copywriter’s salary.

This year, I got close to doubling it.

Here’s where my income came from in 2016:

  • Website copy (through an agency): 35%
  • Content marketing (ebooks, whitepapers): 24%
  • Ghost writing*: 20%
  • Blogging for businesses: 14%
  • Print book**: 2%
  • Guest blogging: 1%
  • Knitting pattern descriptions: 1%
  • One-off projects (website content): 0.5%
  • Fiction: 0.5%

* Primarily ghost blogging.

** This wasn’t one of my novels — I was contacted by a travel company to write copy for a picture book on Portland.

What this tells me:

  • Fiction is growing in revenue, though not in percentage. Last year, I also made 0.5% of my income from writing fiction — but this year I’m making more overall. I wasn’t as productive in this area as I wanted to be, but next year I hope to see a substantial change in the percentage.
  • Website content is still my biggest earner — but it’s not my favorite. What the numbers don’t show is that most of my website content work happened earlier in the year. Since about October, I’ve transitioned into doing more long form content marketing, like whitepapers and ebooks. I expect those sorts of projects to make up the bulk of my income next year as I transition away from projects I don’t enjoy as much.
  • Ghostwriting made up a significant portion of my income. I was surprised to see just how much I earned ghostwriting last year. It was mainly in the form of ghost blogging — partly for one regular client, and partly through a couple of different jobs that were primarily marketing. Next year I’d like to grow that percentage — hopefully by adding on ghostwriting business books as well as blog posts.
  • Blogging still pays the bills. Blogging made up 25% of my income in 2015, compared to 14% this year. Although I’m still doing it I’ve restructured my approach. Rather than having hectic weekly deadlines for multiple clients, I now sell a package of posts that I deliver in one go. That allows me to manage my projects better. (I also now say no to anything that I don’t personally find interesting — I find I burn out pretty quickly otherwise.)

How I found writing clients in 2016

I was going to break down my marketing efforts for this year — but then I realized I’ve literally done no intentional marketing. Every client I gained in 2016 was referred to me, found me on LinkedIn, or saw a bylined article I’d written.

That said, niching down has helped my inbound marketing efforts immensely: Nearly all of my clients are B2B SaaS companies.

I was surprised to find last year that B2B SaaS (software-as-a-service) clients made up a big chunk of my revenue. This year I doubled down on that niche, which I find both fascinating and enjoyable. (And profitable!)

I’m really happy with my current clients — they’re all in industries I find interesting, and doing work that is making some sort of difference in the world. That’s something I want to focus on in the future. Not to say I want to only work for non-profits — just that I’m no longer interested in taking on a client just for the paycheck. I want to know they’re doing good work.

Fiction income — Will it be worth the effort in 2017?

StarfallMy income from fiction — book sales, short stories, and royalties — made up only a tiny fraction of my total income.

Yet, when I think about how I want to spend my days and how I want to earn a living, I would rather it comes from residual sales of book — passive income — rather than from services. A book is an evergreen source of revenue, whereas a client may disappear or decide to go a different direction.

In an ideal world, my revenue percentages from website content (35%) and fiction (0.5%) would be swapped. If I want to make a living writing fiction, how do I make that happen?

First of all, I need more assets. I can’t expect to replace a big client with a single novella. That means if I want to achieve this goal, I really need to up my game when it comes to how much fiction I’m writing.

I went through several dry spells in 2016, where I let my productivity be held captive to motivation, rather than focusing on building a strong writing habit.

In 2017, I plan to focus on daily and weekly habits, rather than setting myself lofty word count goals with no support structure.

Over the last couple months I’ve built a habit of writing 30 minutes every day, something which has hugely impacted the amount of fiction I’ve been able to write — even when I’m busy with client work. I’ll definitely keep that habit up in 2017.

How was your 2016?

I’d love to hear how things are going with you, in business, creatively, and in life. Leave me a comment or drop me a line!

Want to learn more about how a new freelancer can make a living writing? Read my reflections on Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

Cover photo by Ian Schneider, via Unsplash.

Hit Your Writing Goals by Setting Smarter Quotas

Yesterday I wrote 3,300 fiction words in one day.

This isn’t usual for me — even when I’m on a pretty good writing streak. This especially isn’t usual for me lately — after all, I’ve been in a 2-month-long fiction slump.

(Need proof? I wrote 2,650 fiction words in the entire month of October.)

Part of that has been busyness (I had my biggest freelancing month ever in November). Part of that was burnout (I finished up a massive revision of a fantasy novel in September). Part of that was the stress of the current political climate (ugh).

But a lot of it was just a lack of momentum on any particular project.

Nineteen days ago, I knew something had to give. I had just come back from the annual retreat with my business mastermind group, the Trifecta, and while the other two members of the group clearly sympathized with my feelings of ennui when it came to my writing, they had no time for complaining without action. Write or don’t write, they said (super nicely), but stop complaining about not meeting your writing goals if you’re not going to do something about it.

To quota, or not to quota

I’ve used word count quotas to try to get in the daily writing habit on multiple occasions, but something never clicked for me. No matter how small the quota, I would still have a hard time fitting it in with client work. If I tried to do it before, I would be too anxious about upcoming deadlines to really focus. If I tried to do it after, I would be too brain-dead.

Plus, if I ended up between projects or in the editing or planning stage, I wasn’t sure how to track my progress. David D. Levine once told me he counts every word deleted during the editing phase as progress toward his daily word count quota, which is great, but somehow also didn’t click for me. For some reason, the logistical problem of how to count the words, combined with never knowing how long writing 500 or 1000 words would take out of my day made it difficult for me to stick with a word count quota.

Nineteen days ago, I decided to try something a little different. Instead of a word count quota, I just told myself I had to work on fiction for 30 minutes.

That was it. Just 30 minutes. I could write character bios, scene sketches, snippets of dialogue — whatever. I could edit something I’d already written. I could just stare out of the window for 30 minutes thinking about the plot.

The point was that I spent 30 minutes every morning working on a piece of fiction.

For some reason, that was ridiculously easy. Even during the height of last month’s client work crush, I could find 30 minutes in the morning to play around with a project. Because I knew it was only 30 minutes, it was easy for me to compartmentalize the stress about client deadlines. I just turned on Freedom and got to work.

Baby steps add up toward writing goals

The first few days were nothing to write home about. Because I was starting work on a brand-new novel*, I wasn’t sure who my characters were or where anything was going. The first few days I logged two to three hundred words of exploratory setting descriptions — but, hey, that was two to three hundred words more than I had written any other day for weeks.

At first, the work was mechanical. The muse was far from the room — I was just putting fingers to keyboard and making them plod away.

But after a week, I started to get into the story. I started thinking about it outside of that 30 minutes. I started writing down snippets of dialogue on my lunch break or before bed.

Soon, I was even scheduling in a second timed writing session later in the day — 15 minutes here, another 30 minutes there.

I was gaining momentum. And all of those little snippets of writing sessions have added up: 19 days ago I wasn’t working on anything; today I’m 12,000 words into a brand-new novel.

For so long, I’ve put off writing unless I can have a large chunk of time to work on a project. I had no faith that I could accomplish so much in so little time.

Man, was I wrong.

How much progress could you make toward your writing goals in 30 minutes?

*Sorry mom. I’ll actually finish one of my many works-in-progress for you to read soon.

(Feature image by Bartosz Gorlewicz, via Unsplash.)

What I did (kind of) on my personal retreat vacation

Well, I promised that I would report back after this weekend’s personal retreat to let you know how it went.

The short answer? Not as planned.

After one day, my retreat was cut short due to an emergency. It’s all perfectly fine now — don’t worry — but I didn’t have the uninterrupted days of relaxation, planning, and work that I’d hoped for.

That’s disappointing, of course, but it’s also life. It doesn’t matter how much you plan — in the end you still have to roll with the punches.

I’ll admit, I started writing this post with a bad attitude. Why bother? I thought. It’s not like I got anything done. And probably no one will notice if I don’t deliver the promised reflection post.

But as I started writing, it became clear that I’d actually accomplished quite a bit — and learned some good lessons.

What happened in the woods….

My intention for the personal retreat was — besides relaxation — to knock out several big personal projects that I had been putting off because of busyness and client work.

Despite my abbreviated time, I got some periods of deep work in.

  • I outlined the draft of a lead magnet e-book I plan to write as part of my new marketing push to attract more ghostwriting clients.
  • I drafted a book proposal for nonfiction book I’ve been toying with for some time, and sent it off.
  • I started drafting a short story for an anthology submission.
  • Oh — and I also sewed some adorable gifts for my niece and nephew.

I also got some nature time in. I went on a gorgeous hike to see the second tallest waterfall in Oregon (Salt Creek Falls), and nearby Diamond Creek Falls (the top photo).

As I’m typing this, I’m actually pretty proud of myself. I had been pretty disappointed in the brevity of my retreat, but in retrospect I actually did get a lot done. Plus, just the amount of planning I did in the lead up gave me a ton of clarity.

What didn’t happen in the woods

I’m disappointed I didn’t get to outline the next novella in my Durga System series. (The same series as STARFALL.) I find that actual writing is easy to weave into my normal day-to-day routine, whereas outlining and other preliminary work is easier to do in a large chunk with fewer distractions.

I was hoping to return to regular life with a solid plan so I could dive into the writing — but I suppose I’ll just have to set aside time during my regular work week to get it done. It’s strange being in between writing projects, and I’m itching to get started on something new!

My mind on nature vs. my mind on social media

2016-09-29-12-48-52The other thing I don’t feel like I got done was resetting my mind. I’ve had a lot of different projects on a lot of different burners, and I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed for the past few months.

I’d hoped this retreat would clear my mind not only by knocking out some of these side projects (which I did), but also that it would help me get back in the practice distraction-free work. I also hoped that I’d get to spend a lot of solo time in nature to help re-center myself. That didn’t exactly happen.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve been letting the stress and frenzy of the weekend color the quiet work that I should be doing. I’ve been letting myself get distracted with election coverage (*sigh*), or flipping over to social media when I should be working.

That way madness lies.

And also information overload.

Pulling the personal retreat off the pedestal

A while back, I read a post by Leo Babauta on Zen Habits about how unhappiness is a result of us clinging to our expectations instead of experiencing reality, and I think this past weekend was a perfect illustration of that.

I would have been thrilled with the amount of work and naturing I got done if I wasn’t still clinging to the unicorns-and-utopias dream of what I wanted my retreat to have been. I would have continued to enjoy my days even in the chaos of the emergency if I hadn’t constantly been thinking, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go!”

I’ve let myself slip into distraction in part because I didn’t have the blissful experience I was expecting over the weekend, but it’s time for me to stop using that as an excuse, and just get back into my practice of quiet focus in work.

There’s no reason I can’t schedule myself better and outline this novella.

There’s no reason I can’t continue to build thoughtful planning into my regular schedule.

There’s no reason I can’t take a sabbatical from news coverage in my daily life.

And there’s really no reason I can’t just take off on a Tuesday morning and go on a hike. I live in Portland, for goodness sake — it’s criminal that I don’t take more advantage of nature!

It would have been nice to have a perfect weekend, but es la vida.

Now, if you need me, I’ll be off making the most of today.

Read more about the article Planning a Personal Retreat for Creativity and Career
Photo by Vladimir Kudinov via Unsplash.

Planning a Personal Retreat for Creativity and Career

I’m one of those people love fall.

I mean, don’t get me wrong – summer is great. I love the whole sunshine and being warm thing. But there’s also something about summer that can be, well, exhausting.

When the sun’s out, I feel compelled to take advantage of every gorgeous second. It’s hard to hunker down and work when people are inviting you out for bike rides, and hikes, and early afternoon happy hours on sunshiny patios.

Who wants to stay home for the weekend when you could go camping or out to the Oregon coast to get rained on? (You know. If you miss the rain in Portland in the summer you can always head to the coast.)

This morning was the first day that it truly smelled like fall. We’ve had our share of rainy, cold days, but this morning it smelled…different.

It smelled like a season of change.

I’ve been planning a personal retreat for a few months now. It coincides with a race that my husband is doing. I agreed to drive him to the start, and then I’m secreting myself away for the four days that he’ll be racing. Originally, I thought this could be a writing retreat where I could make some solid progress on a novel, or whatever needed done.

But now, with fall in the air, I’m taking this as an opportunity for personal reflection.

It comes at the perfect time – I’m ready to switch gears on a number of projects. A large business venture that my husband and I have been working on all summer long has been mostly put to bed. (At least, the most labor-intensive parts.) I’ve just put the finishing touches on an intensive novel revision, and sent it out the door to a couple of agents. I have a few big client projects on the docket, but I’m not wrapped up in anything big right now.

Basically, this is the perfect time for me to take a deep breath, look around at my life, and decide where I’m going from here.

I’ll report back after my personal retreat is over, but I wanted to offer a “before-and-after” look of how I’m planning this thing – both to have accountability, and to help others who are planning something similar.

Here are my guidelines:

Internet Use

I’m not going to go completely off the grid – partly because I think I might go crazy and partly because I’ve told a few clients that I’ll be available to chat about projects starting when I get back.

But I am going to limit my internet time to two hour-long sessions: one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Otherwise, I’ll unplug the modem and not use my phone to check email or social media.

(We’ll see how my willpower goes with the phone. I hesitate to put it on airplane mode because I’ll just worry the whole time that something happened to my husband on the race and no one can get ahold of me. If my willpower doesn’t work, I’ll install an app like Freedom.)

Personal Retreat Schedule

I’m thinking the best way to stay on target is to set myself a schedule. I’ll probably modify it as I go along, but at this point, I’m planning to start my day with exercise and meditation – something I always mean to do at home, but never quite get around to.

I’ll set two aside sessions in the morning and afternoon to do some serious work. I’m thinking at least one session per day will be a more “intentional working meditation” session, where I set my mind to mull over a topic while my body does something active. This will likely be either a hike or a woodworking project, of which I have several to complete.

indian paintbrush on Dead Mountain
Indian paintbrush won’t be in season this time of year, but here’s a taste of the beauty of the Oregon Cascades.

The other session will be more practical application, like working on a book proposal outline, or outlining my next novel.

In the evenings, I’ll either read at home or head down to the local bar to have a drink and actually talk to other humans.

Setting Intentions

Because I want to show up on the first day of this personal retreat ready to work, I’m developing my list of intentions ahead of time.

Overall, I plan to examine my life as a whole and make sure I’m still on course. I’m really satisfied right now with my work, life, and relationships, but there definitely things I could improve on. One of my goals for this week will be to identify areas to improve and strategies to bring my life more in line with what I want it to be.

Because so much of my life is my work, I’ll be spending the bulk of my time considering that.

I always break my work into two parts – the freelance work I do for clients, and the fiction work I do for myself. I thoroughly enjoy both categories, and lately I’ve managed to get them to be about 50/50 when it comes to my overall workload. I’d like to keep it at that, so part of my considerations will be to look at my freelance marketing and niches to get more projects that I love and which pay well.

I expect that the freelance side of my business will float the fiction side of my business for a few more years – but ultimately I would like to make money writing fiction. It’ll take some strategic planning to get there.

The last thing I want to consider is travel. It’s been a few years since I’ve been on a big trip, which is something I find very important. I was really inspired by this recent interview that Ed Gandia did with Kevin Casey about freelancing and traveling. I’d love to find a practical way to incorporate more travel into my life.


Have you ever taken a personal retreat like this? What was your experience? I’d love to hear what goals you set and how you structured your time.