Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heels

Contrary to what everyone says about me, I'm not perfect.

Okay, actually no one says that about me. But feel free to start the rumor.

Striving for perfection, or at least trying to be the best you can be, is an admirable goal. Unfortunately, it isn't easy. Not due to lack of effort, but lack of subjectivity.

As a wise man once said, "A man's got to know his limitations." That wise man was Dirty Harry. And he's right.

Recognizing our own flaws, and then acknowledging that they need to be fixed, is hard to do.

One of my Achilles' heels is email. I just can't keep up. I answer the quick ones, but the ones that require more in-depth replies or scheduling issues get put off until I have an InBox of ninety-four urgent messages that all need to be answered yesterday.

Perhaps it's a discipline thing. Or perhaps it's a time issue thing. The fact that I don't like answering most email is also a factor. Whatever the case, I suck at email response.

My de facto coping mechanism for this flaw is to wait until the email piles up so badly I have no choice, then I'll waste two days answering it all. This adds unnecessary stress, hurts my career, and is just plain bad business.

But I'm halfway to fixing it. Because I've identified the problem, and the poor way I handle it, I can now try to brainstorm a solution. Here are some options:

1. Hire an assistant. While this would be helpful, I don't have the funds for it. And much as I would like having someone constantly remind me what I need to get done (another big Achilles' heel of mine is forgetfulness) I'm simply not at the stage in my career where it is necessary. I can still handle everything myself, I just don't.

2. Become less accessible. I see the allure in this. A lot of my email is fan-related, or new writers seeking advice. I open myself up to this because it's a way to help spread name-recognition, word-of-mouth, and brand awareness. I'm not a bestseller being bombarded with hundreds of emails a day, and seclusion could hurt more than help. So for the time being I'll keep public email address, and still allow people to contact me directly.

3. Schedule time. This makes the most sense, because it is within my power and budget. If I've established that answering email is important, then I have to devise a plan to get it done.But deadlines and travelling make consistency impossible, and uninforeceable.

4. Garbage in, garbage out. This is probably the best idea, and something I can certainly keep up with. As soon as I get an email, I should answer it immediately. Then I'll never get behind. But there's also a good chance I'll never check my Inbox again.

5. Schedule GIGO, adjusting accordingly. Now we're cooking. If I vow to answer email when it comes in, and chose to answer email at a semi-regular time (such as whenever I boot up the computer, when I wake up, or right after I finish writing my quota for the day) that addresses all of my concerns.

So I'll go with #5. But even though I have a semi-solution, there's still a chance of lapsing. Assuming I have very little self-control (a good assumption) what can I do to make sure I stick to this protocol?

Please hit me with your answer, and then take the opportunity to reveal one of your Achilles' heels, along with potential solutions.

A wise man (not Dirty Harry) once said, "There are no problems, only opportunities." Ask yourself what needs to improve about your career, then challenge yourself to do something about it.

43 comments:

devonellington said...

I understand the email dilemma. I receive approximately 500 legitimate emails per day, many of which demand attention, because of the different projects. Fortunately, some are informational and can be skimmed and filed until I need them.

But a lot require time-sensitive response.

I don't answer email first thing in the morning. I need the early morning for fiction, before I'm "tainted by the day". I don't check email until 2-3 hours into my workday.

My process for it is to skim each account and mentally sort the relevance:

Work-related
Friends/lovers/family
Other

Most of the work-related/gig-related goes to one or two specific accounts, so that can get cleared out pretty fast.

Then I scan the rest for familiar names of friends/lovers/colleagues and take care of that.

And then I pop on and off a few times a day and deal with a few dozen other emails here and there.

I've always got a backlog, but it's a little better.

Especially when it comes to spending time on other people's work, you have to put your own work first, your paid deadlines, and then everyone else has to get slotted in to the free time.

My most creative, productive time is early in the morning, and that's the time I save for my own work.

My biggest problem is filing. I let papers pile up until I can barely see the monitor.

The solution I'm trying to implement is to file everything as I print it/use it, and also spend 5-10 minutes per day on the backlog.

Any more than that and I get overwhelmed.

Devon
Ink in My Coffee

Rob in Denver said...

Truth be told, if you're saying things like, "I can still handle everything myself, I just don't," there's a reason for it that's compelling enough to go ahead and hire the assistant. It's no different than saying, "I can change the oil in my car, but I don't."

I assume you have zero problems outsourcing other things in your life that you can do. I imagine even hiring a part timer to take care of these things can pay for itself. And I bet you could even find a college intern who'd do it for nothing... other than the experience and access.

As for my Achilles' heel... consistency. Taking a day off my WIP somehow always becomes three days off. Sadly, I can't hire an assistant to write it for me.

Great post.

Thistlehart34 said...

I guess I could say that I've got two Achille's heels that are two sides of the same coin.
1. Lack of Self Discipline and
2. Procrastination

Those two things result in me being distracted easily (Oh, look...SHINY!) and avoiding writing by using the excuse "I can't think of anything to write!"

I have found that having someone, other than myself, impose a deadline for me helps me to buckle down and actually get some writing done...which in turn, gets the creative juices going and I actually become productive.
I'm sure that I'm not the first aspiring writer to make this "discovery" but whatever works, right?

Kjetil Johnsen said...

Just wanted to tell you: Found your website a few weeks ago, it made me curious, I bought the first Jack Daniels from Amazon, love it, and will buy the rest as well.

Jude Hardin said...

That Dirty Harry. What a philosopher!

I need to develop something with a stronger hook. Something "edgier," according to my agent.

Got any suggestions? Well, do ya, punk? ;)

Sera Phyn said...

oooh, goodness. I'm actually a compulsive e-mail checker. I always feel as though I'm going to miss something important if I don't check my e-mail. I think that, even if I do one day hire an assistant, I'll still handle my own e-mail because of this.

As for my heels, I'd say I have two that are somewhat debilitating and have strong ties to one another.

1- Procrastination
2- Self doubt

I am waiting on a reply from an amazing agent, a final decision on whether or not she'll represent me. The problem is that I find myself stalling in my writing. I put of working on the sequel to the book she is considering telling myself that a lot might change if she has editing suggestions. I doubt my own talent and how good my story actually is which makes me procrastinate endlessly.

Like I'm doing now.

::sigh:: It's hopeless...

Can someone kick me off the internet? ;)

PJ Parrish said...

Joe,

Switch to AOL. A quarter of your mail will end up in spam, another quarter will disappear into the ether. Make sure you get the cheap AOL rate that doesn't come with tech support. This way you always have an excuse.

Trust me, this works.

booklady said...

E-mail is already a problem for me, and I don't even get that much of it. (I'm also not published yet...) I always feel like I need to craft these long, interesting, insightful responses, and it's hard to make time for that sort of thing. So I put them off, and the longer I put them off the longer I feel like my response needs to be, to make up for my lack of promptness. So applause for you for figuring out the problem and finding a solution for it. I hope it works for you.

Erica Orloff said...

My Achilles' heel . . . or hell . . . is my desk. I swear I'm going to have everything in neat piles, organized, and soon--within days, it's a mass of papers and I can't find a spot to even set my checkbook so I can balance it. It's counterproductive . . . I find it hard to concentrate.

I'm fairly convinced if I could organize my filing system, and give away three of my four kids, I could conquer the problem. ;-)
E

Mark Terry said...

I'm a GIGO guy myself.

And really, Joe, I don't think your major flaw is your inability to keep up with your e-mail. Really. :)

It's that body parts in the basement freezer thing.

Anonymous said...

My only question for you is this: after all the time and money you've invested in building your brand as JA Konrath, why use a pen name for AFRAID?

JA Konrath said...

why use a pen name for AFRAID?

Three reasons.

First, AFRAID is a different genre, horror. No humor. While I think that most of the people who like my Jack series will enjoy AFRAID, now people can approach it wiht no pre-conceptions. Especially men (most of my readers are women).

Second,while my Jack books did okay, they have a track record, which means bookstores would order AFRAID in the same quantities. The hope is to sell in greater quantities, and that means a new author with no prior numbers.

Third, my publisher said so.

Mary Stella said...

I'm compulsive about email and can't leave it unanswered. Easy for me to say since I don't receive anywhere near the number of emails that you do a day.

That said, I have to answer email before I write or thoughts of it sitting there ignored hamper my writing.

Treat it like part of your morning routine along with brushing your teeth and eating breakfast. Get it done and out of the way, then don't return to it until after you write your daily quota.

My big Achille's Heel right now is lack of confidence. You'd think after two books, I'd have built up the confidence level, but I'm in the land of, "What if this third book sucks so bad that nobody buys it?" Procrastination then becomes the Achille's Heel disguised as a useful tool to avoid getting that
question answered.

So, now the solution is to answer self-doubt with, "You've been rejected before and it didn't stop you. The book might suck, but it might not, so write it anyway."

Sarai said...

So from someone who doesn't get a lot of emails just yet I have a suggestion that I use at the day job. I will sort the emails into importants like devonellington suggested then I will read them throughout the day when I find my mind wandering.
When I need to think about something, take a break from writing or just need to think about a problem I go and check the email and respond to one or two. Usually by then I have figured out the solution to the problem and I go back to work. It kills two birds with one stone sort to speak.

Becka said...

Do you have an email program that will send inbox emails right into certain folders? You could make an "Important - read first" folder for emails from people who you know you need to read first (publishers, ect.) and then a "family/friends" folder for people just wanting to chat, and another folder ("Newbies"?) for those of us who just like asking questions. This might keep you on your toes at least with the really important things.

I'm pretty sure my heels have all been mentioned above. Procrastination, Self-Doubt, Self-Discipline, ect. But I'm chipping away at all of them!

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I'm glad I'm just like everyone else when it comes to emails and piles of papers on my desk, lol!

However –

A wise lady (called FlyLady, at www.flylady.net) said many times: "You can do anything for 15 minutes", i.e. set a timer, read emails for 15 minutes, then do something you like better for another 15, and so on. She has also written a couple of books "an hour at a time".

steve in maine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenn Hollowell said...

I follow the advice noted in the book, The Writer Mama - 20 minutes to do this - GO, 20 minutes to do that - GO, 20 minutes to schedule this - GO, and so on. I admire the 15 minute philosophy outlined on flylady.com (and even enlisted a cow-timer to do the job), but that five extra minutes really HAD to be included in this working writer's life. ::winks:: There are days, however, when I would rather chuck said cow out the window, pour some tea, and hide under the covers . . . but no, the urgent emails, looming deadlines, and "why the heck won't you answer your phone" messages beckon. (as do my children)

Eileen said...

Do you have some template answers for the most common questions/comments? Someone writes in for writing advice and you have a template answer for places to go. They write it to say they love your books (and how could the not) and you have a standard thank you.

You can always customize a few lines at the bottom.

I started doing this for my day job and it works. In my writing life I am not yet besieged by fan mail- but hope springs eternal.

steve in maine said...

Eileen's got a good tip there, and a FAQ page as well could save writers plenty of time.

Just checked your site, J.A., and you not only already have a FAQ page, but Writing Tips and Links pages as well, and they're all top notch. So what people are still writing to you about, I don't know, except to say, as I will, thanks.

Aaron Crocco said...

JA, I just found your blog today and I really enjoy the information you're giving here. This particular post is really interesting and I'm going to post an excerpt and link to it from my blog. The tips in this post are really great!

Aaron Crocco said...

Oops. I meant the previous post.

Angela said...

I can't afford an assistant either, but I think that's the route I'll have to go to maintain some semblance of control in my life. Somebody (wow, I hope it wasnt' you) suggested hiring a student from the local university to take some of tasks off my plate. I'm starting with the English department, looking for a student who'd value working for a published author. I plan to pay them the going university rate or a little higher. I figure 10 hours a week is plenty. Now I just have to find time to hire somebody. I really need an assistant to help me find an assistant.

steve in maine said...

(This is the same comment as above, only shorter. My own Achilles Heel is rewriting long after I should.)

I'd agree that locking the door on incoming mail could harm more than help. If it gets to where you can't keep up with your e-mail, or simply feel bad about it taking so long, you might post a note on your site saying, "I appreciate your e-mail, but often don’t have time to reply." Then if and when you do write back, your readers will appreciate it even more.

There's a brush-with-greatness feeling one gets whenever one receives a note from someone you admire, and authors can only gain from respecting their readers enough to reply.

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Josephine Damian said...

JA, you will always have more money than time; however little money you have, you have less time.

So my advice is #1. They have these virtual assistants now, many who work part time. You can turn over a lot of your fan mail and myspace management over to them, you can pay them to work X number of hours per week, an even if they just make a small dent, that's that much more free time for you (to write!).

I too am really bad at returning emails, and since I've become more popular (and therefore busy as a blogger) I've gone so far as to block emails from certain people from my writing group who send lengthy emails full of questions, and book talk - I'm happy to talk about those things, but rather do so in the comments on my blog - I'd rather have public content and discussion on my blog rather than one-on-one private email conversations that do not add content to my blog.

Short emails are ok, but when one person makes constant demands on my time, I draw the line.

Mark Terry said...

I don't know, Joe. I think you ought to take the guy up on the Costa Rica deals.

And I like your blog, too. You write goodly.

When is AFRAID coming out and what name is it being published under?

Scott Sherman said...

I enjoyed this post, not just because I can relate, but because a few weeks ago I sent you an email about advertising in your ebooks and you never responded. Having low self esteem, I figured it was because my note was inane or somehow offensive. Smile.

Now, I have some small comfort knowing that it may have been overlooked. Whew. I'll send it again in the hope that you get a chance to read it.

And let me just say here in public - I love your books and your blog! Keep up the great work.

Scott

Mary said...

My Achilles heel is filing. There are always more important things to do (including commenting on blogs!) and I feel guilty spending time on ‘mundane’ tasks.

I’m determined to crack this. So I plan to take Rosemary and Jenn’s advice. Thank you!

Omar Cruz said...

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Jackie said...

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Maria said...

--Scott Sherman -- I've emailed Konrath before. I'd say it probably takes him around a month to respond. :>)

I think his email is now to the point where, like other famous authors, he needs to put a disclaimer nearby:

"I cannot respond personally to each email; there are simply not enough hours in the day. I do love to hear from you--fan mail is a huge bright spot in my day. I am simply unable to respond to each one and still have time to write the next book!"

Of course in your case...with a business prop...well, when he offers that sort of thing, he kind of needs to respond...I'm guessing that's why he wrote this long post on the subject.

:>)

Nick Kelly said...

Be careful what advice you take, Joe. Harry also said nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog. Try telling that to my three-year old!

nK

Stacia said...

JA
I use Tim Ferris's 4-Hour Work Week rules...

Use Outlook rules to help eliminate the spam.

Check email 2x a day or less if you can.

Setup an auto responder to tell people WHEN you'll answer or tell them to call you IF they have your cell phone number.

Setup an FAQ page on your site to answer the questions you've been answering over and over again.

Those are just a few, but they've been helping me stream line the email at least so far :)

~Stacia

Aimless Writer said...

How old are your kids? Can they answer your email? :) That could be fun. Pay them $10 a week to keep the box empty.
I just read "How I got Published". Loved your chapter on in that one. Your story is inspiring, but also shows that your overnight success took a lot of work.

Email dilemma? Give it an hour in the morning as you drink coffee and wake up.
Create a "personnal" email box just for your agent, friends & family so you don't miss that stuff.

Trish Ryan said...

"I can still handle everything myself. I just don't."

I'm not sure why, but that line made my day. Maybe because it hits so close to home :)

Jackie said...

I have riters block...

johnbakeronline said...

I do that, too. Exactly the same, 94 urgent messages that all need answering immediately.
There's no solution to it. Oh, you can try all the things you mention and all the things that other commentors mention, but you won't solve it. I know this because I can't solve it either.
It happens because you're much more interested in other more interesting things than answering complicated emails.
Which means you've got a life. Which means you're doing OK.

Anonymous said...

The book "The Four Hour Work Week" is a great source that may help--virtual assistants, batching your email response, etc.

Cynthia E. Bagley said...

Well, how many of those emails are just plain junk? I receive about 20-40 emails on my WG discussion group. We help each other and answer medication questions. Sometimes I can help, sometimes I can't. But we help each other.

I receive 10-20 emails trying to get me to buy p***s extension products.

That's what I hate the most... the junk. It takes time to sort out and delete. And, it is worse than the junk mail in the box. At least that stuff only showed up once a day.

Cyn

Wendy Roberts said...

I force myself to spend an hour dealing with these kinds of emails every morning. I get them out of the way. If there's more than an hour's worth they get held over until the next day. It's easy to start looking at your inbox like it's a time sucking evil torture device. Um. Not that I ever think that way.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Just found your blog by following a link on Tess Gerritson's.

The email issue. Do you think maybe you have a blog issue? I just saw the number of blogs you follow! I am exhausted just looking at the vast number. Too exhausted in fact to even consider checking ANY out. Sometimes too much is just, well, too much.

ThisGuyDave said...

Hey, Mr. Konrath.

I've recently learned a valuable lesson on contacting writers through email. I have a question for you: How did YOU score on the integrity test? (Sorry if I missed the answer somewhere...you've got a lot of site content here.)