Facing the Blank Page

Most writers face writer’s block at some point. You have a blank page that’s waiting for you to fill it and you have a vague notion of what you want to say, but the text simply doesn’t come out right. So, you write, and write some more, and write still more, and hours later you still have a blank page. Yes, you’ve written many words during that time—all of them good words—just not the right words.

Every piece of writing I do starts with an outline. Even my articles start with an outline. Creating outlines help you focus your thoughts. More importantly, they help you to see how your thoughts will flow from one idea to the next. Sometimes, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you really don’t have anything more than a vague idea that will never become an article, white paper, book, or some other piece of writing. Of course, that’s really the reason for this exercise—to see if you have enough information to even begin writing. If you don’t have enough information, then you need to research your topic more. Research can take all sorts of forms that include everyone from reading other texts on the topic, to doing interviews, to playing. That’s right, even playing is an essential part of the writer’s toolbox, but this is a kind of practical play that has specific goals.

Once you do have an outline and you’re certain that the outline will work, you need to mark it up. My outlines often contain links to resources that I want to emphasize while I write (or at least use as sources of inspiration). A lot of writers take this approach because again, it helps focus your thoughts. However, an outline should also contain other kinds of information. For example, if a particular section is supposed to elicit a particular emotion, then make sure you document it. You should also include information from your proposal (book goals) and your reader profile (who will read a particular section) in the outline. Your marked up outline will help you understand just what it is that you really want to write. In reading your outline, you can start to see holes in the coverage, logic errors, and ideas that simply don’t fit.

Moving your outline entries to the blank page will help you start the writing process. Convert the entries to headings and subheadings. Ensure that the presentation of the headings and subheadings is consistent with the piece as a whole. Unfortunately, you can still end up with writer’s block. Yes, now you have some good words on the page, but no real content. An outline is simply a synopsis of your ideas in a formalized presentation after all.

Write the introduction and the summary to the piece next. The introduction is an advertisement designed to entice the reader into moving forward. However, it also acts as a starting point. The summary doesn’t just summarize the material in the piece—it provides the reader with direction on what to do next. People should view a good summary as a call to action. By creating the introduction and the summary, you create the starting and ending points for your piece—the content starts to become a matter of drawing a line between the two from a writing perspective.

At this point, you have enough material that you could possibly ask for help. Try reading your piece to someone else. Reading material aloud uses a different part of the brain than reading the same material silently. Discussing the material with someone else places a different emphasis on the material. The other party can sometimes provide good suggestions. You may not use the suggestions directly, but listening carefully can often present you with creative ideas that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

It’s important not to overwork the piece. Sometimes you need to do something else for a while. Yes, you always want to spend time in research and thinking your piece through, some writing is often done in the subconscious. Fill your head up with as many creative ideas, fascinating thoughts, and facts that you can, and then do something that actually will take your conscious mind off the topic. You might watch a television show or movie, go for a while. have coffee with a friend, take a nap, or do any of a number of other things. The important thing is to forget about the book for a while. Often, you’ll find that the now semi-blank page doesn’t present a problem when you return. Let me hear about your ideas for dealing with the blank page at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Encouragement, A Self-sufficiency Requirement

I’ve received more than a few e-mails over the years about the seeming impossibility of working closely with a spouse in our self-sufficiency efforts. Actually, husband and wife working together toward a common goal used to be the normal experience—working separately is a modern event and one that probably isn’t very good for relationships at all. In Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work I talk about the need for respect. Doing simple things that mean so much when it comes to displaying your respect for the other person and not simply assuming the other person knows that you respect them. As important as respect is to a self-sufficiency relationship, encouragement is even more important.

Rebecca and I encourage each other daily in both small and large ways. A peck on the cheek when the other person looks down is just the tip of the iceberg—sometimes the other person needs a hug instead. Being the other person’s cheerleader is a major part of keeping the other person active so that the two of you can meet the requirements you’ve set for your self-sufficiency efforts. A little encouragement goes a long way toward making an impossible goal quite achievable. Doing the impossible with less than nothing at times has become a somewhat common occurrence in our relationship. Believing that you can do something is an essential element in actually doing it. Knowing the other person believes in you too tips the scales in your favor.

Of course, the other person can fail despite the best encouragement we can provide. When failure occurs, it’s time to think about the failure and assess what went wrong. There are actually benefits to failure and failure is a natural part of life. Sometimes a little more encouragement will help the person get back up and try again. Other times, you must conclude that you’ve learned one more way to avoid failure and move on to something new. The point is that failure doesn’t mean the encouragement or idea were ill conceived or wasted—it simply means that you need to do something different. The world is full of untried possibilities, so pick one and give it a try.

When it comes to self-sufficiency, partnering with someone who understands the benefits of both respect and encouragement is a far smarter choice than choosing someone with skills. Anyone can learn a skill—not everyone can encourage another person and there is most definitely a lack of respect between people today. If you’re just starting your self-sufficiency efforts, don’t become discouraged. Anything worth doing takes time and patience, and requires a partner who both encourages and respects you. Certainly, the two of us have done both for each other over these many years. Let me know your thoughts about encouragement and respect at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

This Year’s Personal Flower Garden

Spring came later than normal this year and it has been quite cold and wet. As I discussed in Enjoying My Own Personal Flower Garden, Rebecca has created a beautiful flower garden for me. I go there during the spring, summer, and fall when I need a break from the office. It’s a sign of the most sincere respect of my need for privacy and of her love for me. The garden is quiet, cool, and serene during the hectic summer months. I go there to contemplate life in general and when I need to think about the specifics of a book. Of course, we also enjoy time together there.

Most of the flower garden came back this year. For example, the wild strawberries look just as beautiful as ever.

FlowerGarden01

We noticed something odd about the flowers this year. Not only are they more plentiful, but they’re also a darker pink than ever before. Some of the flowers almost look light red in color. I looked around online for a reason for the color change, but didn’t find one, so let me know if you have any idea of why they have changed in color this year.

Last year she had also planted some columbine for me. The flowers come in all sorts of colors and I’m delighted to have three beautiful colors to enjoy. The plants are much bigger this year and she has moved them around to provide this tricolor presentation.

FlowerGarden02

The bishop’s weed returned this year as well. The plant has gotten much bigger and has bloomed profusely.

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I’ve read a number of negative things about bishop’s weed (such as it will take over the garden), but so far we don’t seem to be having any problem with it. We’re either lucky or some condition in our garden, such as those pesky rabbits that eat absolutely everything, is keeping it under control. A few other sites tell of ways to use this plant successfully, but it’s one that you should probably enjoy from afar.

One of my favorite non-flowering plants is silver mound. Rebecca has tried a number of times to get this plant to stick around and she’s had some success, but last year’s plant succumbed to the drought. So, I have three new silver mound plants to enjoy this year (they’re so nice that the garden just doesn’t seem complete without them).

FlowerGarden03

A new offering this year is the English daisy. It’s quite pretty. Various places I’ve looked online have told me to enjoy it this year because it may not return next year. In England, it’s actually considered a bit of a weed, but something this pretty shouldn’t be called a weed.

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I also received  new color of coral bells (also called coralbells) with a dark pink flower. It’s not just the flower that is a different color, but the leaves as well. Even when these plants aren’t blooming, they present an interesting leaf shape and add to the splendor of the garden.

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Sharing the garden with me for the first time are the chickens. They come by and feed under the bird feeder (picking up all of the seeds the wild birds leave and reducing the weed count as a result). Of course, they’re curious as to why I’m just sitting there when there are so many lovely bugs to eat and wonder whether I might not just serve a purpose by petting them instead of being quiet. They really are funny birds.

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Our friend left behind a pair of his boots to use as planters last summer. Rebecca has made full use of them. We now have boot planters on the patio.

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Enjoying My Own Personal Flower Garden

Every year Rebecca works out a new arrangement and adds plants to her gift to me, a personal flower garden. Every morning I wake to the scene below our bedroom window of Rebecca’s hard work. I know it’s an effort because getting into that rock garden is hard. It’s on a slope that’s taxing even for me; I can’t even imagine how hard Rebecca must have to work to maintain it for me. I talked about my garden a little last year in the Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work post.

One of Rebecca’s goals is to make sure that something is always blooming in my rock garden. It’s a little difficult to accomplish, but I know that people in the past performed the same task to ensure that there would always be something pretty to see. I really respect her efforts to make the garden as pretty as possible and to keep it that way all summer. So, the pictures you see in this post are a mere snapshot of my rock garden. Later in the summer, the scene will change and then it will change again for fall.

A favorite new plant is a pincushion flower. The exquisite blue flowers are really hard to capture, but I managed to get a passable picture of them. The real world flower is even more beautiful than the one shown here.

RockGarden01

One of the flowers that came back from last year is the blanket flower. It’s a favorite of mine because the colors change slightly over time and I love the fact that the flowers are bi-colored. This year the blanket flower is paired up with fiber-optic grass. As you can see from the following picture, the combination is really nice.

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A few of the rock garden elements are edible. For example, the chives have some beautiful flowers that are also edible (as are the chives). I’ve always found chives to be a nice addition because they combine color and texture so well.

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Some of the flowers are quite bright. One of the flowers in this category is the coreopsis. Rebecca has them placed where their profusion of bright flowers will show up best. This is another holdover from last year. Immediately below the coreopsis in this picture is bugleweed ‘metallica crispa’, which has already bloomed for the year, but will continue to add its deeply colored foliage to the garden.

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Most of the pictures that I’ve found of wild strawberries online show white flowers. I’ve been assured that the plants in the rock garden are wild strawberries, but they have these dramatic pink flowers. As with many other plants, they’ve come up from last year.

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Another bright pink flower in the garden is seathrift (armeria). This year the seathrift is nestled in with some ferns and a happy looking frog.

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As I said last year, the view from our bedroom is for me alone. When I go out my back door though, I see some amazing beauty—the rock garden, our herb garden, the woods, and bushes surrounding our patio. Most importantly, I see the love my wife has for me in producing something so quiet and peaceful for me to enjoy.

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Developing the Reader Profile

A lot of people have written to ask me about writing books—about the techniques I use to develop a useful book. So far, all of my books are technical in nature. Not all of them are computer-related, but the majority are. The sorts of books that I write is changing and you’ll likely see me write books in other areas in the future. Whether I ever write fiction remains to be seen, but I do plan to branch out into other areas. No matter what I end up writing, I expect that I’ll use many of the same techniques when writing future books as I use to write my current books. Mainly, I need to find a way to communicate the ideas that I understand in a form that the reader can understand. It doesn’t matter what those ideas are—they exist in my head and I need to get them out of my head and into the reader’s head.

When I’m putting an outline together, I try to put myself in my reader’s shoes. Sometimes that means actually doing a little play acting and trying out things to see how I’d feel if I were the reader. Yes, conveying technology, or any other topic for that matter, means understanding the reader and how the reader feels. It means respecting the reader as a person and understanding that the reader has specific needs, as well as specific skills. Sometimes I’ll talk to the beta readers who are reading my books about issues or bounce ideas off the technical editor for my book. I’ll review materials online and see what people are discussing online. In short, I develop a profile of my reader and roll it around in my head until I can start to see a technology from the viewpoint of my reader. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a necessary skill to develop.

In a way, I’m creating a relationship with what I think my reader will be. Beta readers do offer the opportunity to interact with actual readers, but my reading audience is relatively large, so it really does come down to creating a rapport with an idealized reader—one who encompasses everything I expect that my reader will be. The relationship takes form in a profile that I write down and review relatively often as I write the book. As I come across additional insights during the writing process, I develop the profile of my reader more fully. I keep constantly asking myself how I would talk about the subject at hand if I were sitting in a coffee shop (or some other relaxing environment) with the reader.

To a certain extent, I need to consider the reader’s need for self help. I can’t provide any reader with a specific answer for most problems the reader will encounter. To do so, I’d need to write immense books that no one would want to read because they’d be too bulky. I can provide the reader with knowledge and insights, but I can’t provide the reader with a precise response to any given problem because at the time I write my book, the problem is undefined. So the communication takes the form of ideas, rather than a specific procedure, in most cases.

Authors are hindered by a number of factors. The most important of these issues is the inability to communicate with the reader in real time. It’s the reason that I try to make myself so accessible through e-mail and by writing this blog. Even with these additional levels of communication, however, there are still barriers to communication. For example, I can’t easily read your body language to determine whether my response is actually helpful—I must make my best guess. When writing a book, I have to anticipate your needs and hope that my guesses are good ones because they are, in fact, guesses.

The reader profile doesn’t have to take a specific form, but it does need to provide you with a complete picture of the reader. Even if you define a few reader aspects incorrectly, having a reader profile will help you remain focused throughout the writing process on a particular reader. Here are the sorts of questions I ask myself when creating a reader profile:

 

  • What is the reader’s education level?
  • Will this reader understand these specific concepts?
  • When will the reader be reading my book?
  • How will the reader react to certain types of information?
  • Are there social biases I need to consider when communicating with this reader?
  • How does the reader view the subject at hand?
  • Is the reader likely to have language issues or special needs?
  • Will the reader be alone or part of a team?
  • How does the reader view me?


Most of my books require that I ask other questions, but this a good sampling of the sorts of questions that I ask myself. You’d think that with all of this effort spent considering my reader that I’d communicate quite well. However, there have been books where I ended up missing the reader completely with my profile. I directed the book at one audience, but another audience actually found the book more helpful and purchased more copies of it. When that happens, I get a lot of e-mail from a lot of disgruntled readers (and the online reviews are also less favorable). These failures require that I go back and review the premises on which I based my book and make corrections. I maintain statistics for the book, and if I get the chance to write an update, I tweak the reader profile accordingly to better meet the needs of the audience that purchased my book.

Anyone writing anything can benefit by creating a reader profile. If you currently write documentation, but don’t create a reader profile, I encourage you to do so because you’ll end up with a far better document as a result. As the years have passed, my profiles have gotten better, but I’m under no delusions that I’ll ever write the perfect profile. Even so, I’d never consider writing a book now without creating a reader profile first. Let me know your thoughts about using reader profiles at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Making Self-Sufficiency Relationships Work

A comment I regularly receive is that people can’t understand how Rebecca and I can work so closely together and for so many years. (We recently celebrated 31 wonderful years together, 25 of which we’ve worked in business together and 13 of which we’ve been self-sufficient.) Of course, there isn’t any hard and fast answer to this question and what works for us is unlikely to work for anyone else.

However, I think you could boil some of the key elements down to a few words, such as mutual respect. We do odd things like say, “Please” and “Thank you.” I say these things are odd because I don’t know that many couples exercise the option to show each other courtesy. We also expect that we’ll fail and that the other person will also failthat forgiveness is both necessary and desired. If people simply respected each other and employed courtesy freely, I’m sure the divorce rate would decrease. Worrying more about the other person than yourself has gone out of style, unfortunately, so I’m sure the divorce lawyers have nothing to worry about.

Rebecca has a special talent though that’s the topic of today’s post. She makes the mundane seem quite spectacular. Every year she creates a rock garden for me. It’s the first thing I see from the window when I get up in the morning and the last thing I see each night. I won’t share the window view, howeverthat’s exclusively for me. Here is a ground level view of some of the highlights of the garden. One of my current favorites is the Scottish bluebells:

ScottishBluebells

The purple flowers really show up nicely. They’re getting tall and spiky now. Another colorful member of the rock garden is the blanket flower shown here:

BlanketFlowers

From a color perspective, they remind me of a larger version of the Indian paintbrush that grows natively around here. We need to plant the blanket flower each year (the Scottish bluebells come back on their own each year).

The rock garden has a lot of shade, so Rebecca plants sedums freely in it. The blue spruce sedum is flowering right now. The yellowish flowers are a contrast to the rest of the plant and make it look quite fancy as shown here:

BlueSpruceSeedum

The autumn joy sedums are also quite pretty. The variegated version adds some lovely color to the rock garden as shown here:

AutumnJoySeedum

At the front of this part of the rock garden is a John Creech sedum. All of these sedums will last through the winter. Rebecca normally covers them with leaves. However, if I ever found them in precisely the same spot for more than two years in a row, I’d be amazed. Rebecca loves to move things around.

A final offering is the Japanese painted fern. it looks a bit metallic in some respects as shown here:

JapaneesePaintedFern

These are young ferns. As they mature, the center will take on a more reddish hue. I’m looking forward to seeing what they look like later.

The care that Rebecca takes in maintaining this rock garden (and all of our other gardens) tells me a great deal about her love for me. That, in turn, makes it easier to overlook the rocks in the road we take together. I can’t imagine working anywhere without my wife. Together, the two of us make an amazing team.

If you’re going to enjoy your self-sufficiency, you need to come up with a plan to maintain your relationships. Being courteous helps, but taking time to care is better. Can you imagine working with your significant other for 25 years? I certainly hope that you’ve found the same joy that I have. Write me about your best experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.