Calling it

My name is William and I have a problem with cold calls. Making them. I'm fine with getting them, I can even enjoy a good cold call so long as they don't stick robotically to a script. They always do but I always give them a chance to break free so I feel I've contributed something to the chat before I hang up on them.

But making cold calls, that's tough. And that's tough in another sense as I have to make them. I want to make them. I'm speaking at the Stratford Literary Festival next month because I cold-called. Obviously it took more than that one call, it took chats and emails, but it wouldn't have happened without my dialling that number. Me. Stratford. That's worth the difficulty of making calls.

I've developed two coping mechanisms that I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about them because this week I've been trying a modified version of one and am now ever more sure it works. At least, that it works for me. You own personal form of paraylsis may vary.

The first is that I know from years of struggling with this that statistically my most effective phone calls are made between 11am and noon. So in my series of Pattern Weeks here, I've written about blocking out certain times to do certain things and that hour is for phone calls. Monday to Friday, 11am to noon. Bang, bang, bang.

But to do it bang, bang, bang-like, I have to use the other strategy. This is exactly the one I write about in my Blank Screen book about writing To Do tasks as if someone else is going to do them. So in this case, rather than Call Anne, I write Call Anne re invoice number for the Doctor Who feature. Sometimes I'll even put the phone number in there too.

And that means no thinking, no looking anything up, just read task, see number, dial, speak, finish call, breathe out. (I shouldn't have chosen Anne as that example. She's lovely.)

So I game this: I arm myself with all the tools to make the call so that I can't prevaricate and then I set this inviolate time to make the calls – because that makes every other time the opposite. I cannot make phone calls outside that hour. (I do, it's often necessary, but the rule is the rule, I don't make these things up.)

The thing I've changed this week is that I've stopped ringing people on Mondays and Fridays. Again, not true. I had to ring someone yesterday in order to hit my thirty total for the month so nuts to the new plan.

But the new plan is to do 11-12 Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

You may think that's an excuse, that I'm creating more specific times to call in order to create more times I don't have you.

You caught me.

But it's again down to what is working and how often I am reaching people. Mondays and Fridays are bad days to try to get to speak to folk. It must be nice to work in an office where you can relax on a Friday just because it's a Friday and it must be hell to work in one where you cannot do anything on a Monday but panic about catching up, but it's what happens.

And it's what works.

Or it's what works for me.

If you have the same problems with cold calling that I do, give this a try. If you don't, please tell me your secret.

Mixing sound and vision to get the full picture

I’m a very visual kind of man but, awkwardly, what I visualise is text. I can see words. If you and I are talking, I can choose to see your words as text. Squint a bit and there it is, word by word, white text on a black background, right in front of my eyes. It’s great for transcriptions. But text is so much a par of me and I am so much a writer through and through that I have ignored other visual ways of looking at detail. Okay, maybe I can see scenes visually when I’m reading or writing a script, but when faced with a problem, I used to always just think it through. More recently, I’ve written it down and thought it through.

But then last week, I had a meeting that was intentionally nebulous. It was clearly a chance to pitch something, but I didn’t know what and I was fairly sure that there were no specifics behind the invitation either. It would be up to me and what I could bring to the meeting.

And I mind-mapped it.

Slapped down everything I could think of that even considered crossing my mind in the week before the meeting. I used MindNode for iPad (£6.99 UK, $9.99 US) so it was with me wherever I went and by the morning of the meeting, I had a completely useless mess. But it was a big mess. Lots of things on it. And I started dragging bits around. This stuff sorta, kinda belonged with those bits over there. This one was daft. That one was actually part of my shopping list and I’d just put it in the wrong app.

And then I’d find one that ignited another small idea so I’d add that.

After a bit of adding and subtracting and moving around, I had three or four solid blocks of ideas that were related. I exported the lot from MindNode to OmniOutliner for iPad (£20.99 UK, $29.99 US) which picked it all up and showed it to me as a hierarchy of text lines instead of a visual bubble of blogs. I work better with text, I may have mentioned this, so that was perfect for me.

Nearly perfect. I really wanted to then hand the lot on from OmniOutliner to OmniFocus, my To Do manager, (iPad £27.99 UK$39.99 US). I wanted to be able to tick off the ideas as I got through them in the meeting. I wasn’t able to do that on the iPad; I suspect that it’s something that needs me to use OmniOutliner on my Mac (from £34.99 UK, from $49.99 US). I’ve got that and I use it ever increasingly more, but I wasn’t at my office.

So instead I stayed with the text in OmniOutliner. Made some more changes and additions, moved some more things around. And then I worked from that list in the meeting and it went really, really well.

The whole process went well: the mind mapping on to the meeting itself. Enough so that afterwards I tried mind mapping again, this time to figure out what I’m doing with everything, not just this one meeting. I’m still working on it. But it’s proving useful. And while I can’t show you the meeting mind map as it’s naturally confidential, and I obviously can’t show you this new mind map of everything because it’s in progress, I can show you a blurry version. This is what I’m doing now:



Pattern weeks part 6 – not so much

Previously… in an attempt to get more done in huge week, I've scheduled some important slots. I'll do certain things for certain projects at certain times so that they are done and I know they are done and they are always progressing instead of ever coming to a pause. I call this schedule the pattern for the week and it's named after the term 'pattern budget'. That's the money you've got to spend on each one of many things, like episodes in a TV series. In practice, you shovel that cash around so your first episode can be really big. You just save the money later and it works out. Similarly, my pattern weeks get disrupted by other events: if I'm booked somewhere for a day, the people who booked me get me for the day. I don't go off taking meetings or phoning other people.

Sudden memory: Hays Galleria, London, by the Thames. I'm working on a magazine and every lunch time would go out to a nearby phone box with a pile of pound coins to make as many calls as I could. That would've been early 1990s and I wonder now if that's the last time I used a public phone box. The magazine was a technology one, long gone now, and I was one of the people reviewing the earliest of mobile phones. A brick with a handset. I can picture me standing by the Thames late one gorgeous evening, phoning people because I could.


I've been working away from my office a lot lately and that's disrupted the pattern twice over: I obviously lose the time I'm somewhere else but it also means getting ahead with some things before it, catching up with other things afterwards.

So the pattern has failed a bit since Part 5 when I said it was working. It still is, I think, and my only real grumble is that the chart I made of the pattern is so amateur that it hurts me. And it hurts me often. I replaced my beautiful iMac wallpaper with this horrible thing and it is also on my MacBook. Hate it. But for now and especially while I'm finding it hard to keep up because of disruptions, I'm going to keep it there.

More urgently for me, I think, is sorting out email. I have a follow-up mailbox that I bung in things I need to respond to and sometimes I also forward the mail right into OmniFocus, my To Do manager. Yet still, especially when weeks break apart, I let things go through cracks.

This week I'm using Polyfilla.

Pattern weeks – part 2

I'm still fiddling. Previously on Pattern Weeks… I was working to bring some kind of structure to my typical or pattern week, chiefly because every week was changing and I knew I wasn't getting enough done. For a detailed previously and maybe reasons why you might like to think about it too, see Pattern Weeks.

Now I'm embarrassed to say that I wrote that and was planning all this back on 31 December and we're now a fortnight further on.

But I do have the plan, at last, sort of.

I ripped up lots of versions and settled for working out a list of things that I really have to get done. I used OmniOutliner for that; lots of bashing in things as I thought of them, as a search of my calendar and To Do list brought them up. And then lots of juggling around. A fair bit of realising that this bit or that was quite similar to something else on the list, I could save some time by doing them one after another.

I ended up with tent poles in the week: inviolate times when invoiolate things have to be done inviolately. They won't be. But they will be more than if I weren't looking out for them.

And that's nearly where I am now. I've got the list, the kind of super-list, the overall no-details-but-big-picture list and I have these tent poles. Certain few of these things have to happen at certain times and I know the things, I know the times.

The intention is to end up with wallpaper on my Mac with this pattern in my face. I'm about a quarter of the way through producing that image in Adobe Illustrator and it's a Tetris-like calendar kind of image with big red boxes, little green ones and some yellow 'uns too.

I'm trying to work out how I'll show that to you when it's done and all the boxes have all their text in – without you being able to see that the big red box that stripes across the whole week at the same time is really just breakfast.

But I'm getting there and it's proving useful plotting and pondering. So I wanted to share that with you, even as I can't yet share the plan.

Working for yourself is harder and better than you think

Lifehacker has a smart post about what it's really like when you go work for yourself. Some of the details are very USA-specific – naturally, since Lifehacker is an American site – but the principles are the same here in the UK:

Often, people want to freelance or start their own business because they're lured by the freedom of working from home. If that's what you care most about, you're probably better off trying to convince your boss to let you telecommute and learning about the downsides of working from home rather than leaving your employer to work for yourself.

List articles – 5 things to eat, 10 things to sell or whatever – are usually quite lazy pieces of writing that are also pointlessly empty. And I'll give you seven reasons why. But this one is simple and straight and practical: I'm not sure I've ever read it all put so well as Lifehacker does.

I've been freelance since the mid-1990s but I also had an enormous crutch of a regular client for a dozen years so I felt I eased into this life. Can't imagine going back now, but I can imagine doing this freelancing an awful lot better: when you've read that article, follow its many links out to further advice. It's a smart collection.

Today is the hardest day for keeping resolutions.

I think it is, anyway. Sorry: no science or research here. Just a lot of years where some of it was in companies and the first Monday of the year was a hard one to ramp yourself up for. And for actually a lot more years when I've been working for myself and today is the day you feel you're starting over again from scratch.

That would be because you're starting over from scratch. All those books you wrote last year, you wrote them last year. Gone. What have you done this year? Bugger-all.

But don't think of today as a new working year. Don't think of it as a year at all. Think of it as exactly what it is: a day.

Today I'm working at a school for the day and part of me feels this is postponing all the freelancy getting-new-work stuff until tomorrow. But this is new work, this is a new school to me and it's working with the staff instead of with the kids and it's working with two other writers for the first time. So it's all new, it's all work, and it should be all great.

And I will worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. I will worry about it, but it will be tomorrow.

You’re on your own and it’s necessary

“It just seems like, you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone.”

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) in My So-Called Life

pilot episode by Winnie Holzman

Maybe you were the class clown in school. If you run in to someone from there today, you still are. To them. You’re somewhat older and you’ve been through the wars but that doesn’t matter. You’re the clown, they’re the ones who were your best friends even though you now cannot see what you had in common with them. She’s the one you fancied and, god, if you aren’t still tongue-tied talking to her.

We are slotted into types and categories by everyone and we do it to them too. This is true, this has always been true, and it has always been interesting when you run into more than one set of friends at the same time. And it’s hugely more interesting now that we have Facebook and you can see the strata of your life reflected in those friends who knew you here, who knew you there. 

But there is one result of all this that actually holds you back. That stops you doing things.

It’s this. Call five friends and tell them you’re moving to New York. You haven’t got a job there, it’s just something you’ve got to do and you hope to find somewhere cheap to stay at first. I hope that at least one of your friends will be excited for you but you know that at least four, probably all five, will try to talk you out of it.

They’d be right to. No job? Nowhere to stay? They’re looking out for you, they care for you. This would be why they are your five closest friends that you can call about this stuff.

There’s a part of them, too, that reckons New York is a long away and they’ll never see you again. You can’t object to that, that’s lovely.

Only, there is also this unconscious part of them that says you’re not the one who goes to New York. You’re not the one who starts a new business, you’re not the sort to do anything they haven’t already seen you do.

Consequently, unless they are very unusual people – and you hang on to them if they are – you will forever find them holding you back. Their concerns for your wellbeing coupled to this locked perception of what you are and what you do means your friends will invariably hold you back.

So you can’t take their advice. You just can’t. If you did, you’d never do anything. I sound like I’m criticising your friends but really the only thing I dislike is what they do afterwards. After you’ve moved to New York, after you’ve started your business. Then they tell you they always knew you could do it. Sometimes they take credit. That, I criticise.

But the rest of this is just practical: no advice from friends, just don’t do it.

If you want to do something, if you want to start something new and your friends cannot give you the advice or help that will get it going, then you’d think that you would turn to strangers.

Unfortunately, if you find a stranger who knows all about New York and starting businesses, the odds are that they sell relocations to New York and they sell services to new businesses. They don’t see you the way you were because they’ve never seen you before. But they also cannot be looking out for you as well as your friends are. 

Which means, sorry, you’re on your own. It’s a horrible place to be because you are a composite of your friends and these strangers: it’s easier to stay where you are and it’s easy to find falsely rose answers too.

Look for people who have done or who are doing what you want to do. Work with them. I believe now that this is why writers’ groups can be so useful: writing is an illness and nobody understands that more than other writers. I say I believe it now because I’ve only recently found a kind of group that works for me. Proper, traditional, meet-every-Friday groups have never done it for me: I’ve not fitted in or the group doesn’t want the same things I do. (Example: I’m a professional writer, I write to be read, but two groups I tried were more into the cathartic nature of writing for oneself, writing for pleasure.  Fine, but not for me.)

Earlier this year I earned a place on Room 204, a programme run by Writing West Midlands. It’s a programme without an overt agenda: they even say there are no meetings and sessions, but there end up being meetings and sessions and they are terrific.

I come away from those enthused, fired up, certain that I can do whatever mad idea I currently have – and then I do it.

Thereafter, I’m the guy who does that mad thing. 

I’m being fairly specific about Room 204 here when I wanted to talk in much vaguer generalisations. I’m talking about all of your friends and everything you do.

But hopefully there is one friend who both wants what’s best for you and sees that it is this new mad idea you have to pursue. If you also see both what’s best for her or him and you see that it is their new mad idea that they have to pursue, marry them.