Pushing the Envelope
by Bob McCrayI've always had trouble finishing manuscripts. I start out great -- hook the reader, get into the story -- then the ending never comes. In my writing class, I was nicknamed "Mr. Beginning." The class met every Thursday night. After two years, whenever I read anything in class there was always the inevitable snickering. "Here we go again. McCray's going to read us one of his beginnings."
The problem was, it was true. I would start out writing an adventure that took place in the Amazon Jungle of South America. Chapter one would be great. (I still have it.) Then I'd go on a library safari to get some background for the setting, and get sidetracked on books about lost tribes, or blowguns, or anacondas. I'd never finish the story, or end up starting another one.
Although I never sold anything while I attended that class, I still kept up my interest in writing. In fact, it kept right on growing. I went on for a journalism degree at night and eventually went to work for an association writing newsletters, magazine articles, and brochures. Ironically, at my job I never had trouble meeting deadlines. The reason was I had an "external boss." I had to report to my manager. He, in turn, had to report to the division head, who reported to the CEO, who reported to the Board of Directors. If I missed one little deadline for the association newsletter, it was curtains. Our office was a few blocks west from Lake Michigan. If you didn't get a manuscript in on time the slogan was, "Walk east until your hat floats."
Writing during the day did take away some of my energy for writing after work. Still, I continued to pick away at articles and fiction at night. However, lo and behold -- I still had trouble finishing manuscripts.
As I looked back, it became quite clear that the difference between my day writing and my evening writing was that during the day I had an "external boss" -- the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. At night, I was the boss: a wishy washy, let-it-go-until tomorrow guy who easily charged off procrastination to the pressures of the day job.
Then, I switched from my association writing job to teaching at area community colleges. Suddenly, my "external boss" of writing was gone.
At the colleges where I taught there were no writing deadlines. There was no "publish or perish" philosophy. In fact, it was just the opposite. Anyone that could find enough spare time to write anything -- regardless how small -- after grading all those papers from a 36-student English composition course was showered with accolades.
At one school where I taught, faculty authors were honored in public. They displayed the authors' publications (and their pictures) in the school library for six weeks. This was culminated by a fancy reception that included a formal presentation of certificates of recognition, a group photo, and a fancy buffet which included chocolate-covered strawberries. The school public relations department sent a press release about the authors to local newspapers, and published the authors and their credits in an academic achievements booklet.
In short, when I was teaching, I had no one standing over me saying "Deadline, or die." For better or worse I was my own boss for all my writing. Edison took more than 500 tries to invent the light bulb. When I became my own boss, I tried as many ways to finish my writing as I could think of.
First, I tried the goal-setting and management-by-objective techniques I had learned at my association writing job. I did the full menu of strategic planning. I set up goals for the year. I prepared monthly production schedules. I drafted a weekly checklist, and a daily planner. While I didn't use my name plate, or save my "in box," I pretty much copied the organization plan from 13 years of employment.
Unfortunately, applying those techniques to a home office didn't work. I spent more time with my daily "to do" list than I did writing. I was so busy crossing off all the items on my daily planner, I never got around to finishing one topic.
Inevitably I fell behind, and my accumulating list of unaccomplished goals kept staring me in the face. Now I had an organized, written record of all the manuscripts I never finished. Often I would put my goals away in a drawer, out of sight. It was disheartening.
At another point I tried analyzing my mid-manuscript crises. That, for a change, was a good idea. I could see that some of the projects I didn't finish -- never should have been started. I learned the maxim "Don't bite off more than you can chew," also applies to writing. For example, for years I had a dream to clean out our attic and, in the process, write a humorous "how to" article about the project.
At the time, I was piling up our old records to donate to charity, and I was excited about unloading this unsightly mess. Then at the bookstore I ran across a price guide for old LP's. Three album covers in my first stack of records -- one by Stan Getz, another by Mario Lanza, and one by Elvis -- were worth major bucks . (I never found the records.)
After several weeks, I realized it would take me a year to inventory our 300 old records, not to mention visiting the used record shops and contacting collectors through ads in the relevant magazines. I was looking at an article that would take considerable reference, expert interviews, and a lot of time.
So, I gave up and started to mound up the books in our attic. You guessed it: there's a price guide for old books. We have books in our attic like leaves on the trees. I got smart. I didn't even start the article.
Another method I tried for self-motivation was using incentives. Company sales programs often reward salesmen who exceed their quota with trips to exotic places. I promised myself rewards for finishing major manuscripts -- a ski or kayak trip, or a writer's conference in Aspen or Vail. It never worked. In fact, I took fewer vacations, because of the negative feelings associated with falling short on my writing goals. I didn't "earn" the trip. Furthermore, despite all the writer's introspection, I became an expert at filling writing time with busy work -- emptying waste baskets, organizing files, or installing new software on the computer. (I soon discovered that computers don't write manuscripts. People do.)
Consequently, after a number of years of trial and error there was some slow, gradual improvement, but no real change. I still had a drawer stuffed with half-finished manuscripts. Then one day a funny thing happened. I was working on yet another unfinished "masterpiece," and I noticed that by mistake I had already typed an envelope to an editor. The envelope was paper-clipped to my "beginning" pages. To my surprise, the manuscript was suddenly burning a hole in my typewriter.
I don't know why! Maybe it was the 32-cent stamp standing idle. I'm a robot when I see a "No postage necessary" envelope. I'll mail anything if it's free. Or, maybe I found out that one of the things I most dread about the freelancing process is researching the markets and typing the correspondence to the publisher.
Whatever the reason, having the envelope addressed, stamped, and ready to mail was like having a cab to the airport waiting at my front door with the meter running. I went crazy to "close my suitcase" -- to stuff the manuscript into the waiting envelope.
As small, and as unlikely a detail as it was, after everything I had tried, it turned out to be my answer -- a legitimate breakthrough. From then on, whenever I was midway through a manuscript and hit a slowdown, I could trigger an expeditious finish to my article (story or essay) by typing the envelope to the editor.
I finish most of my articles now. When I get into the middle of a manuscript, the first thing I do is type the envelope (and sase). For a particularly slow-moving manuscript, and to give myself an extra nudge, I also type and sometimes even date and sign the cover letter. If it's email, I type the editor's name and email address on the top of the manuscript in parenthesis. (I take it out before sending). It works every time.
By the way, the other day I ran out of envelopes, and was having trouble finishing this article. After I bought a new supply -- it was in the mail.
**Bob McCray teaches journalism, business writing, and English
composition at area community colleges, and has published over 300
articles, essays, and short stories in local, regional, and national
publications including: Accent, Outdoor Life, The Rotarian, Old House
Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Runner's World, Ski's Cross Country,
Catholic Forester, Cats, Crazyquilt Literary Quarterly, Camping Today,
Powder Magazine, Crafting Today, Organic Gardening and Farming, New
Press Literary Quarterly, Paddler, By-Line, Family Adventure, Silent
Sport, Radar, Inland Magazine, Modern Maturity, and Time Warner's Writer's
Library. He has also has done features (and photos)
for ten years as a stringer for Pioneer Press (42-newspaper chain), book
reviewing for the American Library Association, and has been a
correspondent for Ski Business, Great Lakes Skier, and Chicagoland
Hockey. His book credits include: a chapter in Ways to Play by Rodale
Press; contributing editor to ten volumes of Vocational Biographies,
V.B., Inc.; contributed and co-edited Building Peace R.I., a book of
essays on peace by high school students. His short stories and poems have
been included in a number of anthologies.
He received a B.A. in English writing from Northwestern; J.D., from the University of Chicago Law School; and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois.) He lives with his wife in Evanston, Illinois.