I have crepe myrtle trees in my front yard that have grown out of control.
A neighbor noticed and gave me some tips on how to prune them to a manageable size. I took her advice and pruned the trees aggressively, but soon they were out of control again.
Again, my neighbor came by and said, “I forgot to tell you the second step. After the initial pruning, you have to come back and pull off the little branches that are too close to the ground. You need to tell the tree where you want it to grow.”
Her advice was very helpful.
Maybe you’re wondering what this has to do with authors.
As authors, sometimes we have to say “no” to good things so we can say “yes” to better things. It hurts to cut away parts of our lives that seem good. When I pruned the crepe myrtles, I cut off good branches that were still producing a few flowers.
But if I want the tree to flourish, I must prune good branches to make room for better branches that produce many more flowers.
Success is difficult in any area of life because it requires focus.
In 2019, we published an episode called Focus, Pruning, and Why Novel Marketing is About to Change.
In that episode, I talked about the mental breakdown I had due to being over-committed. When the episode aired, I was going through a tough season of pruning. I got rid of the WordPress plugins I’d created, stepped down from being a literary agent, stopped traveling, and stopped scheduling new speaking gigs.
My podcast co-host at that time, Jim L. Rubart, was also pruning his life. One of the good things he had to prune was being the co-host of the Novel Marketing podcast.
Listeners have often asked how our careers and lives have changed since that time. They’re wondering
- How did it go?
- What were the results of that season of pruning?
- Did you make any mistakes we could avoid as we prune to improve our writing?
Pruning: 3.5 Years Later
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: What’s happened since you pruned good things from your life three and a half years ago?
Jim L. Rubart (Jim): Dropping Novel Marketing was extremely difficult. It was an emotional moment, but it also freed up my time and lifted the emotional weight of the regular responsibility. It was a good move. I could channel more of that energy into the Rubart Writing Academy that my son and I ran at the time.
Pruning also enabled me to channel energy into my hobbies. It’s important to have interests outside of our careers. Cutting away a good pursuit allowed me to pursue my hobbies while slowing the pace of my life and schedule.
Now, I’ve even pruned even the Rubart Writing Academy. My son’s business was taking off, and we felt like the season for the Rubart Writing Academy had come to an end.
I have the feeling that I still have more pruning to do. Do you feel that?
Do you feel you have more to prune from your life?
Thomas: Yes, but it’s difficult to know what exactly needs to be cut.
In 2019, I pruned everything but the podcast, and you primarily pruned the podcast.
How did you know it was the podcast that needed to go?
Jim: The podcast required the biggest chunk of time for something that wasn’t absolutely necessary for me.
A couple of years ago, I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown. He points out that we invented the word “priorities.” You can only have one priority since it’s the thing that comes prior or before.
He told the story of consulting with a gal who said, “Here are my 18 priorities.”
He said, “You can’t have 18 priorities.”
It’s tough to determine what that one thing is.
Since I’ve always had many personal and professional interests and hobbies, knowing what to cut is tough.
Thomas: I had to look at which activities had synergy. For instance, the book I wrote had nothing to do with book marketing. My brand as “the dating and relationships guy” really confused people about my brand as “the book marketing guy.” That helped me know that promoting my book was good, but it wasn’t helping me with my other objectives.
My other podcast, the Christian Publishing Show, does have synergy. Many listeners of the Christian Publishing Show have been led to the Novel Marketing Show and are helped by the topics we cover on both shows.
That is a synergy.
In our episode about Brandon Sanderson’s Crop Rotation Method for Restful Rapid Writing, we learned that we could be rejuvenated for our work simply by doing another task that synergizes with the one we’re resting from.
You can switch between activities so you’re always charged with energy for the task at hand. But if you’re always drained, or a particular task drains you, maybe that’s not the right crop for your soil. It’s not playing to your strengths.
What happened after you pruned?
Thomas: Jim and I pruned our lives and recorded that episode in September 2019. Three months later, Margaret and I welcomed baby number two. I was very glad I did all that pruning because my wife needed me to chase our two toddlers while she was recovering.
As we entered 2020, the pandemic hit, and since my schedule was freshly pruned, I had a fairly empty plate. When lockdowns started, and writer’s conferences were canceled, I had the capacity to offer a series of free webinars for authors.
For the first few weeks of the lockdown, I offered several webinars every week because I was ready. I’d already pruned everything that didn’t have synergy with my desire to help authors, and there was a desperate need among authors for at-home conference workshops.
Those webinars caused a massive jump in my email list of at least 2,000 subscribers. I also experienced a spike in goodwill with people because I didn’t charge anything for those webinars. Many of the sessions were talks I normally gave at writer’s conferences.
When it was time for the Book Launch Blueprint in May of 2020, we had three times more students register than in 2019.
Much of that growth was due to my pruning. If I had been a literary agent dealing with my clients’ panic about delayed shipments and paper shortages, I wouldn’t have had the capacity to offer the webinars.
I was well positioned for creating webinars, and in many ways, my start as a professional course creator was birthed from that pruning.
Pruning was scary.
I was making money on the activities I cut and didn’t know where the new money would come from. If I hadn’t had the mental breakdown, I don’t think I would’ve been able to prune so aggressively because I would have been too scared of the financial ramifications.
But the money did show up. New students joined us, and Novel Marketing now has two to three times more listeners than it did when we released that pruning episode.
Our increased focus, attention, and effort have resulted in more fruit. As it is with trees and flowers, so it has been with my career.
What are your thoughts when you look back at that season of pruning?
Jim: I needed to give myself permission to stop doing some things.
By 2015, I’d narrated my own books, but I was just beginning to record audiobooks for other authors, and I really enjoyed it. I mentioned it at one of our mastermind retreats, and a fellow mastermind said, “Maybe that’s what you’ll end up doing.”
Deep in my heart, something jumped and said, “Yes, I would love to do only that!” But I did not give myself permission to do it.
At that time, I thought, “I’m the co-host of the Novel Marketing podcast. I’m a novelist, speaker, and teacher, so I need to keep doing all those things.” I didn’t allow myself to say, “You don’t have to write novels forever or co-host Novel Marketing forever.”
In 2015, I didn’t know I could give myself permission, but in 2019, I did.
Thomas: Once you’re in the Christy Hall of Fame, your motivation shifts a bit. Once you achieve your goals, you start to wonder if you should pivot into something else. I imagine you were asking, “Do I want to start helping other authors succeed? Or do I want to be part of the publishing industry in another way?”
At that point, you could have become a literary agent, a publisher, or an audiobook narrator.
Jim: That’s exactly it. You don’t necessarily have to keep doing the jobs that have given you success. I always wanted to be a great husband, a great dad, and a successful novelist. After I’d accomplished those goals, I wondered what was next.
Perhaps someday I’ll write another novel, but I’ve noticed a pattern in myself. I like to become successful in something and then move on to something else. I like the ongoing learning and constant stimulus of learning new things. I’ve come to understand that’s not a flaw, and I’ve given myself permission to achieve goals and move on to the next one.
Thomas: Moving from one thing to the next leads to more success than trying to achieve everything at once.
Benjamin Franklin was successful at almost everything. He was a successful author, business owner, scientist, politician, and diplomat. Most people dedicate their whole lives to one of those, but he was able to do all of those and more.
It’s remarkable, but as you dig deeper, you realize he was only doing one of those things at a time.
Focus is powerful. If we realize we’re working on something for a season, it allows us to focus. Maybe you’re 100% focused on your book, and you’ve made a lot of sacrifices for it. But those sacrifices aren’t forever. You can reclaim your hobbies in the future.
That mentality will lead to success more often than trying to do everything simultaneously.
Jim: My sense of satisfaction is deeper too.
I have pruned virtually every hobby out of my life right now because I’m focused on one.
Back in 1993, I rode the Seattle to Portland bike race. It’s a 200-mile ride over two days. My son Taylor was six months old when I rode it, and at that time, I thought, “Someday, I’d love to ride this with Taylor.”
Well, “someday” is here, and Taylor and I are training to ride it together this year. I quickly discovered that getting in shape at age 30 is easier than at age 60.
I have had to work hard. I’ve got a training program, and I ride my bike nearly every day. Everything else has been put to the side because I am so focused. I am getting in phenomenal shape. It feels great to put that time and energy into it.
I’ll continue to ride when the race is done, but not with the intensity that I’m riding right now. It’s a season.
Did you prune anything you wish you hadn’t?
Jim: No, I don’t regret cutting anything. I’ve put things on hold that I knew I could pick up again, but the focus has mentally sharpened me.
For example, we live near the biggest surf pool in the United States. I will get on my surfboard and surf in that pool, but not until after the bike race on July 17th. I don’t want to get hurt before I begin. In that sense, I am pruning something I want to do so I can focus on the greater good, which is this bike race.
Focus and pruning require applying mental discipline to every area of your life.
Thomas: You’re not saying “no” to something. You’re saying, “Not yet.” For everything, there is a season.
I don’t regret pruning any of those things, either.
I enjoyed them in the moment. Creating the world’s most popular bookstore plugin for WordPress was a big deal. I worked on it for a long time, and it was a big part of my professional success and identity.
But, if the company I sold them to offered them back to me, I wouldn’t want them. It was great for a season, but I don’t want that responsibility back.
Having the freedom to focus on being a podcaster and making a living from it now is so much better, even though it was scary and risky at the start.
What if my pruning will hurt someone’s feelings?
Jim: Some of my reluctance in giving things up has been because I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
As a Jesus follower, I want to guard my heart.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.Proverbs 4:32
If guarding my heart is my priority, I may need to cut something even if I could hurt someone’s feelings by my exit.
If I guard my heart, I’ll be a better husband, dad, and friend. Give yourself permission to do what is right for your heart.
Thomas: Loving your neighbor means not allowing them to harm you.
Allowing someone to sin against you isn’t loving. People pleasers tend to believe that showing love means allowing people to harm you. In reality, it’s just the opposite.
That harm could be someone stealing your time. It doesn’t have to be terrible or traumatic harm.
You stopped co-hosting Novel Marketing because it took time from your audiobook business. The podcast wasn’t bad. You simply had a better way to use your time.
Pruning is a great test of who your true friends are. A true friend will want what’s best for your thriving and flourishing. False friends will want what’s best for themselves and often use manipulation tactics to coerce you into doing what’s best for them.
If someone tries to manipulate you by saying things like, “Don’t do this to me,” or “If you really loved me, you would…,” you don’t want to be in that relationship anyway.
Jim: When Taylor told me he couldn’t do the Rubart Writing Academy anymore, my immediate reaction was 60% relief and 40% disappointment. I knew it was a hard thing for Taylor to say to me. But by the next day, I was 80% relieved and 20% disappointed.
And shortly after that, we both felt good about letting it go.
A conversation like that might help you and the other person prune the thing that needs to go. An honest conversation may turn out better than you expect.
Thomas: When I was a legislative aid, I learned that whenever the Texas legislature creates a new bureaucracy or big expenditure, they will pass a “sunset provision,” which causes that expenditure, new department, or agency to automatically expire on a certain future date. The legislature must pass a new bill to renew that department.
The sunset provision forces the legislature to evaluate whether a law or department is still needed. In 1930 we needed a Boll Weevil Eradication Fund, but do we still need it?
The sunset provision forces them to evaluate whether to continue a program.
Implement Your Author Sunset Provision Policy
If politicians have that kind of discipline, surely we can too.
You don’t have to commit to something forever. Commit for a year and then revisit it because nothing lasts forever. In some ways, age forces pruning on you.
Jim, you probably won’t be able to do the same bike race in 20 years. Most of us realize we can’t do certain things anymore. It’s sometimes sad, but it’s also freeing. You don’t have to feel bad about not doing it because that season has come and gone. Recognizing the end of a season will allow you to embrace the season you’re in.
Being a writer is a good season, and it’s worth making sacrifices for, but you’re not committed to being a writer forever unless you want to be. It’s a great retirement activity, but you don’t have to write into your eighties.
Jim: Pruning frees us up for other options and opens our eyes.
I read a book called Die with Zero, which is “A common-sense guide to living rich—instead of dying rich.“ The author encourages readers to maximize their money, life, and time.
Since I probably won’t be up to traveling to Europe when I’m 90, I should do it now. If you want to help your kids out, you should probably give them money to help with a down payment on a home when they’re 30 rather than when they’re 60 and don’t need the help as badly.
Thomas: Sometimes, we avoid hard questions and realities until we have to face them.
Don’t let yourself get to the point where you can’t get out of bed like I did. I was so overwhelmed with the number of responsibilities that I literally could not function.
Pruning can be traumatic. You might prune a tree after it’s beyond saving and end up killing the tree.
Don’t let your career get to that point.
Writers often start with a lot of energy and hustle. As our careers progress, we get tired, but our readers still expect the publishing pace we demonstrated initially. That’s why picking a pace you can deliver sustainably over the long term is important.
Jim: Anne Lamott has that famous line where she says, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.’
It’s difficult to unplug on a regular basis because you must write, research, network, and market. You have a never-ending list of tasks you must complete.
But you will burn out if you are not taking daily or weekly moments of silence and quiet. You might not even know you’re burned out until you can’t get out of bed.
What encouragement do you have for an author who needs to prune but is afraid of missing out or hurting someone’s feelings?
Thomas: What advice would you have for someone about to quit doing something they’ve worked hard for?
Jim: I would write all your major tasks on a whiteboard, then force yourself to choose one. It will be painful, and you might want to bring your spouse or close friend in on the process. Ask what they see in you. If you can narrow it down to two or three, ask them for their observations about your choices.
For example, I see the delight Thomas has when he encourages people and helps them solve problems. It’s obvious to me that Thomas loves teaching and helping people on this publishing path, so he better keep doing that one.
Getting an outside perspective from someone who knows you well can help you decide.
Thomas: I used a project value planner in 2019 with three columns: revenue, ease, and joy. For each activity I evaluated (podcast, plugins, committees), I assigned a value for each of those areas.
- Revenue says how much money the activity brings in.
- Ease says how easy it is for me.
- Joy says how much fun I have doing it.
- How much revenue does my book bring in?
- How easy is it for me to write and publish books?
- How much joy do I get from writing and publishing books?
The total score of each activity helps me make decisions.
Get the Project Value Planner Template
If one activity doesn’t bring in much money or joy and it’s not easy, I can easily cut it.
Evaluating the joy factor is helpful. It’s easy to cut everything that doesn’t earn money and default to keep everything that does. But your hobbies are important. You are more than just a money-making machine.
Jim: The first time I used this technique to prioritize, I was shocked to realize the three items at the bottom of my list could be eliminated immediately. I didn’t have to labor over the decision.
Thomas: Sometimes eliminating the worst thing on your list makes all the difference.
If you have one terrible client, you can let them go. Suddenly, your job will get better. If you have one project pulling you down or one book idea that isn’t working, maybe it’s time to admit that project or book isn’t for right now. Maybe that won’t be your next book.
For many of us, 20% of our work results in 80% of our stress and draining fatigue. If you can identify and cut that bottom 20%, you’ve eliminated 80% of your stress. You can be more creative and productive when you regain emotional energy and focus.
You’ll end up with a much stronger book when you can pour all your creative energies into it.
Where can people find out about your audiobook narrating?
Jim: Visit my audio production website, SecondMileStudios.com. I love narrating audiobooks. About 60% of my work has been fiction, and 30% has been non-fiction. I’m really enjoying doing both.
If you need a narrator for your book, I’d love to send you some samples and talk to you about it.
June is Patrons Appreciation Month!
Everyone who becomes a patron in June 2023 gets my course called Publishing A to Z. It walks you through the pros and cons of traditional and indie publishing.
You will learn:
- The pros and cons of traditional publishing
- The pros and cons of independent (self) publishing.
- How to publish your book independently
- How to get traditionally published
- How to get a literary agent
- And so much more!
Publishing A to Z is normally $299, but it’s free for patrons this month. You can become a patron for as little as $4.00 per month. You could cancel at the end of Patron Appreciation Month, and you’d still get to keep the course, but I hope you’ll stick around.
You’ll be more motivated to listen to the episodes and to put the information into practice when you start paying for it. Where your money is, your heart will be also.
Become a Novel Marketing Patron here.
Featured Patrons: New May Patrons
- Carter Phillips
- Richard Ashley Young
- Tom Goodman
- Luke Crouch
- Ann Marie Stewart
- Joe Fitzgerald
- Janine McNally
- Kimberly Willard
- M C Weaver
- Rafael Casas
- Jenni McKinney
- Ruth Schmeckpeper
- Robyn Renée Monroe
- Debbie Sorensen
- Dennis Conrad
- Meg Mac Donald
- Joy Vee