It’s time for another episode of Working In My PJ’s, a monthly series where I talk to people who are running a web-based business. I ask lots of nosy questions about how and why they do what they do.
Today I’m chatting to Heidi Fiedler. Heidi is a children’s book writer and editor. She does, “the deep thinking that’s needed to transform an idea into a book”. Her specialities are picture books, chapter books, and nonfiction for kids. She offers strategic consults and manuscript critiques, as well as a online workshop called Visualize Your Story: An Instagram Workshop for Writers and Editors.
I found Heidi last summer through a sad Googling for ways to boost one’s writing mojo. Her website and Instagram feed were such lovely places to land – full of practical advice and resources, all written with such a kind and encouraging tone. She has a wise, inspiring and you can do it reassuring air, like a really great English teacher.
Needless to say, I was so excited when she was for a Working In My PJs chat! We talk freelance life, what makes a great children’s book, and how to make time for your own writing when you write for others.
1. Can you recall THE moment you realised you were ready to work for yourself full-time?
I had been thinking about it for a long time. The moment seemed right when we were living in California and my husband got a job in Massachusetts. I had no idea if I could make a go of it or if I would like working for myself, but after about a year of transitioning, I loved it.
It’s a few years later now, and while I’m definitely still learning and growing, I think it would take a lot for me to go back to a full-time, in-house position.
2. What does a typical working day look like? Do you like structure/routine or are you more a by-the-seat-of-the-pantser?
I’m still finding that balance! I love when I can get in the flow and just move from one thing to the next effortlessly. But I also love planning. It helps me feel calmer and more confident that the work I’m about to do is where I want to be putting my time and energy. Most days start with a little housekeeping to help me wake up. I know we’re “supposed” to work on our own projects first and then do client work, and then do laundry. But I like working in a clean house, and it helps me gather my thoughts.
I try to answer any emails that are quick and easy or urgent right away. Then I try to stay off email until the end of the day. By 10:00 I’ve either walked or gone to the gym, and I’m ready to actually work on a manuscript!
I’m still figuring out how to balance client work with my own projects, but I usually do something to work on my business each day, whether that’s planning some social-media posts, putting out feelers for a new job, or sketching out an idea I had for a new picture-book.
3. As this series is called Working In My PJs, may I ask about your workplace attire?
I’m so glad you’re asking about this! One of my first questions when I started working at home was “What is everyone wearing?”. I couldn’t figure out a non-creepy way to ask this on Twitter chats or with a new online friend.
I love the idea of those people who do their Pomodoros, and every time they need a break, they just drop into downward dog for a bit. But I kept wondering, are they wearing bras? Are they wearing yoga pants all day long? How do they concentrate the rest of the time?
I go back and forth between wearing “normal” business casual clothes and wearing my yoga pants. Some days I want to put on lipstick and straighten my hair, just so I can feel polished and professional. Other days feeling a waist band cinching around my stomach sounds like more than I want to add to my to-do list! I probably work in my PJ’s once a month, and I never regret when I do, but I’m always glad to feel pretty and polished when I go back to my more styled look too.
4. Tell me about your relationship with reading, and writing. Do you recall the first book you really fell in love with? When did you realise you loved to write?
I always loved books. I remember finishing my first chapter book without pictures (Ghost in My Soup!) and being super proud. Books were always a part of our home. My parents loved to read. My grandmother was always reading. And I was never without a book. Looking back on some of those books I read a million times, I have a visceral memory of turning those pages and getting so absorbed by the stories.
I never really thought of myself as a writer until a few years ago. I resisted being an editor for a while, thinking I didn’t want to taint my love of reading with the work of being an editor. I did a lot of ghost writing as an editor, but it took a while to feel like writing is something I really want to be known for. I’m still growing into that role now!
5. I love how your blog and newsletter blend creativity and practicality. There’s always something I can put into action right away and your free downloads are always so useful! Do you take a strategic approach to your blog content, or do you write as inspiration strikes?
That’s so good to hear! I always try to offer something of value. I feel a little self conscious putting all this content out into the world, so I try to make it personal, but less about me and more about how I can help other writers and editors.
I’m always keeping a list of ideas for what to write about in my newsletters, Instagram posts, and classes I teach. But sometimes if I get super inspired, I’ll run to the computer and work something up in a mini flurry.
6. I have a friend (cough) who is excited to be making a living creating content for her clients… but never seems to get around to writing her own stuff these days. How do you personally make time for your own writing projects, when you’re surrounded by others’ words?
This is THE question for me right now. I could easily book all my time with client work, and it’s definitely tempting to do that. Clients pay money. They send me compliments. And I know the work I do will make its way into the world. When I work on my own picture books, chapter books, and side projects, I have no idea if I’ll ever make any money, or if anyone will even see them, let alone love them.
I’m never someone who lacks for ideas. But I do lack for motivation sometimes. It’s hard to turn my editor brain off, which is properly concerned with marketability and finished products, and just tap into my inner poet and play, experiment, write something new… I’m trying to be conscious about giving myself permission to do that.
I’m finding again and again, it’s not so much about carving out time as preserving energy. I can have hours to write and work on my own projects, but if I’m emotionally or mentally burnt out from client work I don’t have the reserves I need to do something a little scary like turn off my editor brain and play with something that may never make money or see the light of day. Knowing that, I’m trying to prioritize whatever gives me energy and nourishes me, so I’ll be ready when I do have time work to pour myself into my art.
7. You worked on 300+ books in your previous life. What do you feel makes a great children’s book?
I believe the best books make us feel a little less alone. Whether that’s a nonfiction book that encourages a child to ask more questions about the world or a story that engages our hearts and imaginations, it’s the books that connect us to the writer that stay with us.
At school and at home, children are constantly being told what to do and having the world explained to them. They are being talked at in a way we would all find exhausting if we were on the receiving end as adults. Children are rarely engaged in open-ended conversations about what they think and feel and how they interpret the world. I’m really interested in making books that aren’t so explicit and leave enough white space in the illustrations or the layers of the text for readers to add their own interpretations. That makes the reading experience so much more personal. Children have the time and interest to read books dozens of times. The best books have layers that can be uncovered over time, as we grow.
8. What happens for you at the different stages of creating a new offering for your business? Do you ever encounter self-doubt, worry, buttock-clenching fear, etc?
Absolutely. I have way too much angst about whether I’m spending my time and energy well. I’m always worried about that. I want my work to pay off. And like anyone, I don’t want to have a hugely public failure. But the idea of not doing creative work, just because I’m scared, is worse. So I do it scared. And then I try to give myself lots of rest and treats because I did something brave.
That’s the only part that’s changed. I’m starting to get better about not beating myself up about being scared. I’m starting to be kinder and gentler, take it slower, and encourage myself along the way, knowing I’m doing lots of big scary stuff.
9. What’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you about your work?
I love doing manuscript critiques because they let me do what I do best, identifying the essential strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript. After receiving a critique from me, one client said, “Heidi, I am blown away. I’m having an emotional reaction, here. How amazing, how lovely, to get your insight and have it be so deep and wide-ranging, so clearly articulated, and so kindly put. You have far exceeded my hopes and expectations about what you might do.” That makes me so happy.
I also love hearing kids’ reactions to my books! They always pick up on random details that totally delight me. After a friend’s daughter read Up Close: Reptiles and Amphibians, she said the axolotl, “looks like a dead pig with a headband on.”
Yep! That makes my day!
10. What are your favourite ways to procrastinate?
Want to hear something silly? I’m actually a pre-crastinator. I rush to complete projects so they aren’t hanging over me, even when I have plenty of time to work on them. Some days, I have to remind myself that procrastination is actually a good thing and makes me more creative. And writing emails to clients or cleaning the bathroom doesn’t count as procrastination! At least not in my world, where the procrastination is supposed to leave me ready to work eventually.
So I have a Pinterest board of ideas for what to do when I need a break. I’m all about Pinterest, which is definitely a source of inspiration if not procrastination.
I like doing crafty things. Even if it’s just rearranging my desk or making a card for a friend, doing something pretty and creative usually gives me a little hit of energy. But a lot of time I’ll check Instagram. I have a yoga wheel that I can lay back on when I need to stare at the ceiling. I should probably spend more time doing that.
I’m also a believer in just taking a break and not calling it procrastination. If you’re procrastinating, you might just desperately need a nap! Or a day of painting!
11. What is your beverage of choice while working?
I drink green tea all day long, one bag the whole way through so I don’t go crazy with caffeine.
12. Working for yourself can be a lonely business! Do you have any sources of support?
I get deep in the zone when I’m working home alone. I LOVE how much I’m able to get done when I’m by myself, versus in an office with other writers or editors. I can totally find my flow here.
But I do overthink the business side of working for myself. Questions about how much to charge, which clients to say no to, how to market my services etc, are all things I like getting another perspective on. I’m part of the Being Boss Clubhouse, which is a great place to talk with other creative entrepreneurs. I’ve met a couple writers, artists, and photographers there that I can jump on Skype with if I need to talk something through. I also like checking in with the EAE Facebook group to see what other editors are struggling with.
I like listening to podcasts as I do house chores and talk my walks. Those are my imaginary friends some days! I really crave laughter after a day by myself, so lots of times I’ll watch Whose Line Is It Anyways or listen to a funny podcast.
13. When it comes to getting organised, are you a digital or analogue person, or a combo of the two?
Both! I have a Google Calendar that I share with my husband. It’s good for tracking long term dates like doctors’ appointments or vacations. And he has his class schedule in there, so I have some idea when he’ll be home for dinner.
I also have a printed calendar where I list client deadlines. I use washi tape to mark out how long/when I think I’ll be working on a project, so I can visualize how much work I’m committing to.
But I also have digital sticky notes on my desktop with the deadlines, so I can easily see what’s coming up.
AND I have something called the “chalkboard” (which is not a chalkboard, also just paper). It was inspired by Kathleen Shannon’s method. It helps me visually set goals, but in an open ended way that allows for the unpredictability of life. And I can track things like guest posts, podcast interviews, signed contracts, students in my ecourse, whatever is important to me that season.
I’m also starting a bit of a bullet-journal thing, where each month I look at my whole life (work and family etc) and write down the biggest goals, themes, and activities. When days get really crazy, I put out notecards for each day of the week and write what I need to get done on there.
It sounds like a lot, but I haven’t been able to give up any of those methods. They all help me look at things from a different perspective and envision the future.
14. Can we get a peek at your work space?
Thank you gazillions Heidi for your time!