Archive for September, 2011

The Writing Life, Chapter 9: Making Plans

I’m sitting here working on my monthly writing plan for October. I enjoy this part of the process, where I look ahead at all the projects I want to get done in the month ahead. The time is full of promise as I think of the possibilities. (Sometimes my end-of-the-month review is less exciting, especially if I didn’t get everything on my list done.)

For October, I’m finishing up an educational white paper, articles for National Geographic Kids and Teaching Tolerance, three profiles for the Association of Educational Publishers, a brochure for the Highlights Foundation, and a publicity project for theOneSchool, One Book project.

In the cracks between these projects, I’ll be sending out queries for school visits and magazine articles. I’ll also be speaking at the Diamond State Reading Association and the New York State Reading Association conferences (and submitting proposals for some spring conferences).

Best of all, it looks like there will be time for me to work on some books at various stages that have been waiting patiently in line for several months behind other more pressing projects. One is a poetry book about the beach that I’m trying to finalize, another is a poetry book I’m just beginning about things to be thankful for, one is a biography about Revolutionary War figure John Greenwood, and one is about the ongoing work of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery to solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937. With a variety of topics like that, I’m certain to remain mentally stimulated throughout the month.

Another aspect of these monthly planning schedules is that they are often subject to change. If new projects emerge that have tight deadlines, everything else shifts around to accommodate them. Of course, unanticipated projects are good—especially ones that generate income.

As I wrap up September and look back at my list for this month, I see that I accomplished most but not all of my priority items. All in all, it’s been a pretty successful month. It will be interesting to see what I think this time next month when I look back on October. Maybe having shared publicly what I plan to accomplish will make me even more efficient about getting it all done! We’ll know in a month.

Random Thought of the Week: I’ve often heard it said that when budgeting time for household projects, you should estimate the amount of time you think it should take and then double that estimate to get a reasonable projection of the time it actually will take. I don’t quite do that with my writing, but I do assume that most projects will take longer than I initially expect.

The Writing Life, Chapter 8: The Truth About Deadlines

Sometimes deadlines seem like a bad thing. They can cause pressure and anxiety. Sometimes they deprive you of sleep or the ability to relax and watch baseball on TV.

Sometimes deadlines are a good thing, though. When you’re a freelancer like I am, you need to constantly have projects going so you can continue to pay your bills. Lately I’ve been working on several different projects with overlapping due dates. Although that has on occasion proved stressful, it’s far better than not having enough work (or enough money coming in).

Deadlines are also good because they help me focus. The more projects I’m juggling, the better organized I am about getting them all done. I’m far more productive when I’m really busy than when I’m not. Freelancers typically use the slack time in between projects to write query letters and conduct other marketing activities. I do, too, but I’m not nearly as productive as when I’m really busy. For instance, I’m drafting this blog entry at the Newark Public Library as I wait for John to return to Newark after an away soccer game. I will knock out the rough draft in the 20 minutes I have available; if I had an entire afternoon free, I would no doubt spend it drafting the same piece in roughly the same words. The old adage really is true–work expands to fill the time allotted to it.

As a writer, I find that the more I have to do, the more I get done. I’m not only more efficient about getting the deadline assignments done, but I’m also more effective at working ahead on other projects. When things are slack, I find it all too easy to be both physically and mentally lazy. I try to work ahead on large long-term projects such as book manuscripts, but without a specific deadline to push me, I too often let things slide. I do work on them, but I’m not nearly as focused as if there’s a deadline pending.

Sometimes I try to trick myself by creating an artificial deadline. Those aren’t nearly as motivating as a hard, firm due date, however. For more than 25 years I edited a publication, and my work life revolved around meeting the deadlines for that publication. That’s how I operate best. In short, like many writers, I need the pressure created by a deadline to spur me on to peak efficiency. I am not, by the way, advocating putting things off until the last minute to create deadline pressure. Rather, I’m suggesting that people should maintain a full life with lots of worthwhile projects and activities. That way we will find ourselves working to be more efficient in order to meet all of our obligations.

Random Thought of the Week: We spent a thoroughly enjoyable day last Saturday celebrating our daughter’s birthday and watching her play field hockey for her college. Her first semester also illustrates the principle discussed above. Just a week before classes started, she was invited to try out for the field hockey team. I worried about whether she would be able to manage the almost daily practices while also adjusting to college life and meeting the demands of a rigorous class schedule. After the first few weeks, she reported that she felt tired but that she was managing her time more efficiently because she had so much to do. She says all is going well; we’ll know for sure when her mid-term grades come out!

The Writing Life, Chapter 7: Letting Things Simmer

When I talk with young writers in schools, I often advise them to take time between revising drafts of a piece of writing–a day, a week, or even longer if time permits. I call the process “letting things simmer.” I try to practice that principle in my own writing. I find that when I spend some time away from a piece, I can view it with a fresh perspective and see problems I might not have caught if I hadn’t been looking at with “new eyes.”

I’ve taken that principle to new extremes with my latest project, a book of children’s poems about the beach. I first started that project while I was working on my Daddy Poems and Mommy Poems books a decade ago, but my publisher declined the initial manuscript and I concluded I wasn’t ready to complete a book comprised of just my own poems. (My other books were collections that included a few of my poems mixed in with poems from other, more established poets.)

So I let the project sit…and sit…and sit. It sat through two more poetry books. It sat through a dozen nonfiction books and many other projects. It gathered dust in a folder deep in one of my writing boxes. This summer, as I prepared to launch my new freelance career, I pulled out the poems for the first time in years. When I saw the 2001 copyright date I’d placed on them, I realized the project had languished for a full decade.

As I looked over the poems again, I realized that I still really liked them, but they needed a lot of work. So I overhauled the collection, tweaking lines for some poems and completely rewriting (or even discarding) others. I was amazed at how, in many cases, I almost immediately saw ways to improve poems that I had considered finished 10 years ago.

I also decided to take a fresh approach to how I wanted to present the poems. I took an online course in self-publishing over the summer, and I decided to take a crack at going that route with this book. I plan to use CreateSpace, a self-publishing service offered by The advantage there, of course, is that the book will then get exposure through Amazon.

Most of my poetry books are illustrated with artwork, and I’ve loved the illustrations in each of them. For this book, however, I always envisioned photography, and several years ago at a writer’s group meeting I saw some lovely beach photos by Lisa Goodman ( I asked if she would like to collaborate on this project, and we are working together to create what I believe will be a wonderful package. We hope to have the book ready by next spring.

The lesson here is yet another reminder that, like a stew, sometimes a writing project benefits from simmering over time so that the flavors can fully blend and mature. I’ll keep you posted on the project as it moves forward.

Random Thought of the Week: It came home to me recently how parents really do live vicariously through our children. I was never a good athlete growing up. The other week, I got to watch my daughter, Amy, play a collegiate field hockey game for Marywood University. On Tuesday, I watched my son, John, play goalie as Newark High School opened its soccer season with a shutout win over Christiana. What fun!


The Writing Life, Chapter 6: That’s Amazing!

Some of my best assignments seem to come when I least expect them. Early this summer, I queried National Geographic Kids with an article idea. Last week I received an e-mail response saying that they had no need for the article I had proposed, but they really liked my writing samples and wondered if I would be willing to take on an assignment preparing three brief pieces for their Amazing Animals section. Obviously, I jumped at the chance.

Yesterday I had a lovely telephone interview with a zoo manager in Wales about an orphaned ostrich who was given a stuffed ostrich to prevent him from being lonely and has formed a remarkable bond with the toy. I’ve also conducted an e-mail interview about a wildlife preserve in Kenya that protects orphaned baby elephants from the elements with their own little (well, not that little) raincoats. Soon I expect to be talking with a shop owner in California about how his brave little Chihuahua chased two armed robbers out of the store. What fun!

I’m also amazed at the level of care that goes into the material appearing in National Geographic Kids. Not only was there a six-page contract, but there were detailed guidelines and suggestions for each brief article that were nearly as long as the final articles themselves are supposed to be. When I asked if I could send drafts of my articles to the interview subjects to ensure accuracy, the editor informed me that they would take care of that—but only after their own fact checker had carefully gone through the pieces.

Want to know more about the amazing animals described above? Check out the April 2012 issue of National Geographic Kids. I hope the articles will be…amazing!

This week I am meeting with the photographer who is collaborating with me on my children’s book of beach poems. I am excited to see that project move forward. While I really enjoy writing a variety of articles, I keep reminding myself that one of the main reasons I moved to freelancing was so that I could have more time to pursue preparation of children’s books.

Random Thought of the Week: As I rush from one assignment to another this week and juggle other commitments relating to family, church, and business, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be nice for life to slow down a little. But after taking a deep breath and reflecting for a moment, I decide that things are great just the way they are!