The never-ending story

There are things I know I need to do more often. Things like writing, planning marketing for my business, and just taking time off.

These things are good for me, but I rarely take time for them. Usually it’s because there area a hundred other things I could be doing for my clients with that time. If I’m going to be doing something, it seems like it should be something to chip away at that never-ending pile of client tasks.

But, did you notice the key words in that last sentence?

Never ending.

Never. Ending.

The funny part is, I’m always busy. Even when I look back at times when this business wasn’t bringing in enough money to pay our bills, I was busy. I have always worked hard. I have always pushed myself and done more than I probably should have. Always.

And now that the business is taking care of us and growing at an insane pace. Nothing has changed. My days feel very much like the days when we weren’t making it. I get up, tackle as many things as I can throughout the day (and some of the night) and then go to bed exhausted, never pausing to do the things I need to do. Why is it that I’m the same amount of busy in a growing company versus a failing one? I don’t know. But what I do know, is I need to take time for things that are important, because there will never be a time when I feel caught up enough to do them.

Writing
I need to write more. I love it. I’m sure my high school journalism teacher would be happy/incredibly angry to see how much I enjoy writing now. It gets thoughts out of my head and on paper (screen). It allows me to think through problems and topics in ways that I don’t normally if I’m not trying to put them into words for the world to read.

Marketing
I own a marketing company, and sell good marketing ideas to companies every day. And, yet, I don’t take time to plan mine out. I still do it, but it tends to be in more of an “oh crap I need to get something done this month” manner, rather than a nicely calendared plan (which happens to be what I counsel all my clients to do).

Rest
I’ve never been good at this and probably won’t ever be. If you look back through this blog, you’ll see an awful lot of “I really need to take time off” posts. More and more, though, I can’t push myself to work 100 hours a week too often. I can work through the weekend, and sometimes have to, but when I do, I can see I’m much less productive the week after. Maybe someday I’ll figure this out.

The mountain of tasks staring me in the face today won’t all be accomplished today. I hope I’ve learned that that’s okay. The world keeps turning. Clients keep paying. We do a good job and we meet deadlines. I think I can keep doing that and take times for some small things that matter.

Writing the anger out of roast beef

I occasionally like to have Arby’s. I say occasionally because my wife doesn’t like it that much and the nearest one is about 30 minutes away. The main reason, though, is the ridiculously long wait at the drive-thru.

Always with the wait. Arby’s always delivers decent food (for fast food) at a slightly high-end price (again, for fast food) but by the time I’m through the drive-thru I’m usually so irritated about the wait I don’t even want the food anymore. It happens every time at every Arby’s I’ve ever been to. Obviously it can’t be fixed or they would. The delay is because they put together all the food fresh (once again, for fast food) when you order it. I guess if they just pre-made everything and left it under hot lamps I’d be angry it wasn’t fresh.

So how do you fix a problem for a customer who won’t be happy either way?

Good writing.

On a recent trip (by myself) I decided Arby’s was what my rumbling stomach was asking for. I pulled up and ordered (By the way, why can’t we list the main deals on the menu? I hate having to ask if you still have something.) and was about the pull through. The lady on the other side of the worst-speaker-ever-conceived-by-man gave me my total. I was about to pull forward when she threw one last line at me.

“Give us a few minutes while we make your order fresh for you.”

The phrase bounced around in my head for a few seconds as I pulled around. “They are making my food fresh,” I thought. I pulled up to the window and handed her my card. I then pulled up my e-mail on my phone and proceeded to return a few messages. A few minutes later I looked up from my phone and that old impatience began to well up inside me. “I want my roast beef!” it said loudly. Then another voice quietly protested, “But they’re making it fresh for you. That takes time.”

And my anger disappeared. With one friendly, well-written line, they managed to diffuse my annoyance. Amazing. Each time in the ten minute wait I would start to get impatient, the line would do its job and quell the anger.

I know the girl, nice though she was, didn’t come up with that turn of phrase on her own. No, somewhere in the bowels of Arby’s HQ, they collect data about customer wait times and subsequent complaints. Eventually the complaints reached a level that couldn’t be ignored. They looked at the process and discovered they couldn’t speed it up if they still wanted to make the food fresh. They would rather be known as being slow than serving stale food. Instead, someone in the organization handed the problem off to their ad agency.

And this is the beauty of ad agencies. We don’t just create ads. We use creativity to solve business problems. “We have an image issue,” Mr. Arby said, “We’re known as being really slow.”

“Let us see what we can come up with,” Mr. Ad Agency responded. He then handed the problem off to the Arby’s creative group. Some smart writer in that group realized that you have to explain the benefits of the wait to sell it to people. After much thinking, strategizing, brainstorming and concepting (all of which, by the way, looks like doing absolutely nothing), that great line was born. “Give us a few minutes while we make your order fresh for you.” I’m sure it ended up being a minor line item on a huge bill. “Drive-thru copywriting, four hours, $500.”

And yet how much good will that $500 line do them? When you consider the millions of customers Arby’s sees each year, I’m guessing a lot. If even a fraction of those customers returned again because they didn’t mind the wait anymore, it would yield millions in revenue. All from one well-written line.

The moral of the story: Don’t make people wait for fresh roast beef. If you have to, hire a smart writer.

20,000 words

20,000 Words

That stack of pages represents almost 20,000 words. It’s a story I started about three years ago. As is usually the case I wrote a short synopsis, then about 1,000 words of the actual story, then just looked at it for a few years. Over the Christmas break I decided to really get after it and actually finish something.

First draft is done. Now for endless rewrites to find out if there is actually a decent story there.

No More Circuses!

Ever since I was 10 or 11, I’ve wanted to write books. It’s taken a back seat to a lot of other things in my life but over the last few years I’ve actually written quiet a bit of fiction that no one has ever read. I like it that way. It allows me to write and I don’t have to fear finding out I’m no good at it.

The other side effect is, I’ll never find out if I’m good enough at it to actually make a go of it for anything beyond a hobby. So it’s time for someone to see a few words I’ve strung together into semi-coherent sentences. I’m putting together a book with three or four short stories that I like. I’ve been working on it for a while and I’m just about through with most of it.

But, something happened at 2AM last night. I couldn’t sleep. My brain, as it often does, began churning out a story idea instead of pursuing sleep. That story is No More Circuses! It’s very short, I think a little humorous, and I’d be honored if you read it.

Just click the cover below.

Wasting words

Earlier in the month, I decided to take the rest of the year off from writing things on Twitter and Facebook. It was an effort to spend less time posting and less time worrying about what the rest of the world is up to.

I’ve noticed one big change since then. My writing has increased dramatically. It’s almost as if there is a finite well of words that I draw from every day. Once that well of words is used up each day, I’m usually tired and don’t really want to string together coherent sentences. A good chunk of those words are applied to things like email and daily communication. The remaining set can either be used for writing I care about, or things like social media. It’s as though I’ve reclaimed all those thousands of words I post on Twitter and Facebook and they are now flowing in much more creative and productive ways.

I’m still a huge fan of Twitter (my hatred of Facebook goes way back) but I think my use of it in 2011 will be greatly reduced. It has it’s place, certainly, but it will no longer be a place where I waste words.

Living characters

One of the interesting things to me about writing fiction is watching how the story takes on a life of its own and how characters grow beyond their original sketch.

My usual method of writing is to get an idea I’m excited about. I’ll then very quickly write out a chapter or two. At that point I’ll usually get stuck and have to go write a proper outline for the entire story. Over time, that outline moves and changes. Some ideas are discarded and new ones are added in.

What’s really interesting, though, is the characters. They all start as a name and basic description. A very broad sketch of a person. As I begin to write for them they grow beyond that. Some grow in rather unexpected directions as I begin to evaluate dialogue and actions. I begin to think “would this person really do this?” and it begins to inform the story.

The funny part comes when it’s time to kill a character. Sometimes I will have outlined a character’s death in the beginning. When it comes time to actually write the scene, however, I find I’ve really become fond of the character and don’t particularly want to kill them off. Other times I become surprisingly attached to a character and realize that killing them would bring the most emotional moment possible. So, off with their heads.

To me, that is the exciting part of writing. It’s like planting a seed in the ground. I know what kind of tree it will be when it’s grown, but all the intricacies of its growth can never be predicted.