Bite-Sized Goals and Mousey Nibbles: Managing Lengthy Projects

Working your way through large, lengthy projects, like . . . oh, writing a novel, for instance, can be overwhelming, can’t it? First you have to write down the words, then you have to fix the words, then you have to fix them a second time, and possibly a third or fourth or fifth time. Then you have to figure out how to get those words out into the world, whether via traditional methods or indie. And while you’re trying to accomplish all of this, you have everyday life stuff to deal with too: jobs, family, chores—as well as non-everyday stuff, such as illnesses, vacations, bad mental health days, holidays . . . I could go on and on.

Of course, it helps to get organized by setting goals and deadlines—to mark on your calendar in bold when you want your first draft to be finished by, when you need to be done with the first round of edits, and so on. But when setting these longer deadlines, it’s easy to underestimate how long you’re really going to need.

I’ve made this mistake many times. I’ve tried to prevent it by calculating out how many words I need to write each day leading up to my deadline in order to reach it—making room for days when I know I’ll have less time to write. As long as I write the prescribed number of words each day, I’ll be perfectly fine, right? But then, life throws obstacles in my path, and soon I’m failing to meet my word counts and falling behind. The farther behind I fall, the more frustrated I get. I move my deadline out. I recalculate my word counts. Then I fall behind again. I get discouraged and overwhelmed over, and over, and I start to think I’ll never finish this darn thing.

Does this sound familiar?

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you do well with large goals and a daily word count system. Maybe that’s all you need in order to get things done. If so, that’s fantastic! It’s common advice, so it must work for a lot of writers, right? But if it’s not working for you, just as it hasn’t been working for me, I’d like to suggest a few things that have been working for me lately, in the hopes that you, too, will find them helpful.

Make 2-3 Bite-Sized Goals At A Time

I still plan out the large goals (finish draft, revise draft, edit draft.) But I’ve lessened their importance in favor of smaller, bite-sized goals (that, I must stress, aren’t word counts,) and I only plan out a few of these goals at a time. For instance, my goal this weekend was to re-examine my outline, because I’ve discovered I need to throw out some scenes and replace them with brand new ones. I wasn’t writing the scenes this weekend—just taking a look and deciding what I need those scenes to do. My next bite-sized goal will be to outline those scenes. The bite-sized goal after that will be to finally draft those scenes. And . . . that’s it. That’s as far ahead as I’ve planned. Obviously, I have an idea of what I’ll need to do after that, because I know that my ultimate goal is to finish revising this entire draft. But for now, I’m not going to worry about anything further than getting through these next few scenes.

Keeping my goals small and few in number helps me feel like I’m actually making progress. If I look at it in respect to the larger goal of finishing my revisions, it won’t feel like I’ve done much at all. I’ll feel like I’m moving at a snail’s pace, and I’ll get frustrated. So I don’t do that.

Only Work Under Your Best Working Conditions

Pay close attention to when and where you do your best work. Do you get more done in the morning? Then work in the morning and don’t try to squeeze more work out of yourself past that time (unless you absolutely must.) Do you have specific days when you’re less likely to be able to focus? Keep your expectations low on those days. I have a standing appointment every Tuesday morning that tends to throw off my concentration for the rest of the day. I’ve come to accept that if I do get any writing done on Tuesdays, it’s a bonus. I’m better off using Tuesdays to catch up on chores or other things that don’t require me to think too much. I’m having a harder time convincing myself that writing post-children’s bedtimes is also a lost cause. But it’s a fact that I’m usually too tired and brain-drained to do much of anything by then. My best times for focusing are late morning and early afternoon when the kids are at school, so that’s when I make myself sit down and work. I also pay attention to my energy level. If I try to work with my laptop on the couch, am I more likely to nap instead? If so, I’ll make myself a cup of coffee or tea, and work sitting up at my desk. Is my back bothering me to the point where sitting at my desk will make the pain worse and/or distract me? Then maybe the couch would be better after all.

Just Take a Mousey Nibble

Okay, this one probably needs some background. My oldest son is a very picky eater. Always has been. He has texture issues and we suspect he may also be a super taster, because he will often complain about things tasting “too strong.” There was a period when he was younger where he was so anxious about trying new foods, that he would burst into tears at the mere suggestion. That is until one day, he told us that maybe . . . maybe he could just try a mouse-sized bite. A little mousey nibble. A nearly microscopic taste that, like sticking a toe in the water, would help to alleviate some of his fear of the unknown. This still works with him. “Just take a mousey nibble, and if you don’t like it, that’s okay,” we tell him. And so he does. And then sometimes, all on his own, he will decide to take a larger taste afterward.

If, even with your bite-sized goals, you’re still feeling anxious about sitting down to work, or you’re not sure how to get started, or you’re just plain unmotivated, tell yourself that you only have to take a mousey nibble. Open your document and commit to five minutes. You don’t even have to type anything. You can use those five minutes to look over your last paragraph, or glance through your outline, or heck, just stare at the blank screen. Chances are though, once your timer goes off, you’ll be able to settle yourself into your task. And if you still can’t, that’s ok. Take a break and try another mousey nibble later. Maybe it’ll taste different next time.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Do you have any other tricks up your sleeve that help you get through large projects? Please share them with us in the comments.

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard, Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele, knitting, or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys and three mischievous cats. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

How To Write As A Stay-At-Home Parent

SAHM writer

The year I felt profoundly moved to pursue publication for my novels was—you guessed it—the same year that I got pregnant (after years of infertility, too, which makes it doubly ironic). I jumped into the querying game when my daughter was barely a year old, and sold my first book not long after her third birthday. From the beginning, I’ve been building my professional career around my mothering… and when my daughter hit two and stopped napping, I panicked, knowing that I had to figure out a way to become more efficient and write in the small chunks of time I was able to snatch here or there, or else I would be kissing my writing dreams goodbye.

That year I spent a lot of time studying up on ways to boost my output and write in short bursts off and on throughout the day. By the end of the year, I’d completed my new book, almost never writing for longer than half an hour at a time. By the next summer, I’d sold that book, and now—two years later—I’ve successfully edited my debut novel, written another novel and a half, and dealt with the myriad of other tasks that come with being a pre-publication professional novelist.

Often, people ask me about the mysterious tips that helped me shift my work style to accommodate writing once my kid stopped napping, so I thought that I’d share them here!

  1. I switched from pantsing to plotting. Before 2015, I was a DIEHARD pantser, the kind who felt like plotting took the creative energy from a project and killed all originality. But when my daughter was a toddler, I realized that I was completely miserable with the way I was writing; it took me about a thousand words to feel like I was hitting my stride and really taking my story in the right direction, and since I almost never had time to sit down and write a thousand words in a row—let alone anything more than that!!!—it felt like all of my writing time was just arduous and unpleasant. In 2015, I took a class from Melanie Jacobson about increasing productivity, and she talked about how she’d adapted the Rachel Aaron plotting method for use as a busy mom. I blogged about how I outline now in a series of posts here and here. In particular, briefly blocking out scenes before I write them gives a really invaluable tool to help guide me right back into a scene if I’ve had to leave off writing in the middle of it, so that I can be truly productive even if all I manage to snatch are a few ten-minute increments throughout the day. This method also majorly boosted my wordcount, so that I can now knock out a thousand words in about half an hour (sometimes even less) if I’ve done enough prep work before.
  2. I learned how to work well even if the setting wasn’t what I’d prefer. I’m the kind of person whose brain peaks around mid-morning. I’m not a night owl, and by the end of the day, honestly, all I want to do is curl up with a good book or Netflix and let my brain take a break. But when my daughter was little, I read this wonderful series of blog posts on living a creative life with children, and it was transformative. One of the things that it said was that a crucial part of being able to be a creative person as a parent was to learn to work in sub-optimal times and places, even if that’s not naturally the way you’d prefer to work. I knew that was the wake-up call I needed, and I took it to heart. I started practicing writing at night a few times each week, after my daughter had gone to bed, making myself churn out at least five hundred words before I could stop and do something else. Over time, working in sub-optimal conditions became more and more natural. And, sure enough, my overall word output went much higher!
  3. Set a schedule… and make sure it has time for relaxing, too. Around the same time, my husband—who is a software engineer and loves creating programs and websites in addition to his day job—and I came up with the idea of a weekly schedule of “work nights” and “[TV] watch nights.” We realized that we’d started defaulting to watching TV together every night because we were too tired to work, and we wanted to change that. Ever since then, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday have been our designated “work nights,” and the rest of the nights are “watch nights.” We’re only allowed to skip work nights in cases of illness, injury, or holidays. (We also, of course, will often work other times; when one of us is trying to get something finished, we’ll either skip a watch night or work for an hour before loading up Netflix. These three nights, though, are the minimum we’re allowed to work each week.) Combined with the changes I made in step #1 and step #2, this schedule has been really effective for me. It’s honestly amazing what you can get done in a few dedicated one- to two-hour stretches throughout the week. These days, I’m usually able to carve out thirty or so minutes of writing time most mornings, as well, but for a long time these three nights a week were the only consistent time I had to work, and I still managed to get all of my debut novel written in the space of a few months.
  4. When all else fails—get a babysitter! This fall, I hit a patch of intense deadline-crunching for my debut, where I was working for hours every day and still not quite getting as much done as I needed to. I hired a local teen to come play with my daughter (sometimes while I was around, sometimes while I went to the library to work there) for a few hours on a couple different afternoons, and it was just what I needed to get that extra work in. Plus, going to the library felt like this HUGE luxury—so much quiet! Nobody asking me for anything! If you’ve tried everything else and just are not able to fit in enough work time, try a babysitter, a preschool, or a babysitting trade-off. You might be amazed by how much your productivity increases merely by not having any other responsibilities! (And if you’re in a pinch? I promise, a little bit of TV time won’t kill the kids!)

Balancing parenting and writing is tricky—and for a long time, I felt like it was impossible. I’m glad to have been proved wrong!

Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses theadshot1he sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2018. Find her online at http://www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter @beingcindy.

 

Thinking Through Your Brain … and Then Your Fingers

Last week, an author I follow on Facebook (Larry Correia, best-selling author of the “Monster Hunter International” books, among other awesomeness) made an interesting observation about his writing process:

Ten years ago when I was starting out, I wrote my first book while I had two jobs. I had to write super late at night, or marathon weekends. So I beat myself up trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible. I’d often write until 3:00 in the morning.

But I wrote a ton of stuff that wound up not being that good, which got thrown away. After the first couple years I learned to never bother writing past 1 in the morning, because there was a 90% chance anything past that, no matter how awesome I thought it was at the time writing it, was going to suck.

Then when I only had one job, but my career was taking off, and I was writing less crazy hours every night, and then shooting for 5,000 word days over the weekend. It made for a ton of really late nights and long ass Saturdays and Sundays.

And I still ended up throwing out a bunch, or spending a lot of time editing and cleaning.

For the last few years I’ve written full time, I do about 2,000-3,000 a day consistent, and I usually wrap up around 4;00 in the afternoon or so because my creativity is worn out by then and my mind is starting to wander.

But now, I seldom have to throw away much, and the editing time is a lot shorter. Because when I’m not pushing as hard, the first pass is far cleaner.

So even though I was cranking out more words in shorter amounts of time back then, the overall productivity is better because when I’m not pushing crazy hard, there is less clean up time later.

As Howard Tayler would say (for those of you who listen to the Writing Excuses podcast): “LUXURY!” It would be great to be able to quit my job and write full time. But I have this weird addiction to food, clothing and shelter, so I still haven’t quite made that jump. Someday, I hope. But not today—not yet.

I imagine there are more TTOF readers who are in the “starting out” phase, as opposed to writing full-time like Larry Correia. We have no option but to write when we can, always during the times when our day jobs and other responsibilities aren’t commanding our attention. For some, that means getting up early and cranking out words. For others (like one of my writing group friends), that means arranging our schedules for long lunchtime writing sessions. For me, that means blocking out the last several hours of the night for writing time.

Discovering your most productive time of day is just smart. Some other important considerations include location (kitchen table, home office, coffee shop, public library?) and auditory stimulus (this music, that music, silence?). Timing and environment can have a profound impact both on how quickly we write and on the quality of what we produce. But I suggest you can become more productive as a writer by paying attention to the length and frequency of your writing sessions.

Brain-Writing vs. Finger-Writing

In general, I believe that “trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible” can be counterproductive. I have a non-scientific explanation for this. Your brain may work differently (or maybe mine is defective), so all of the standard caveats apply. I’m basing this on my own experience, and of course your mileage may vary.

I think writers have two brains. We have a normal one that allows us to walk, do our jobs, recognize our spouses and progeny, tie our shoes and make it to dentist appointments on time. Deep inside our skulls, we also have a “writer’s brain” that generates story ideas, dreams up characters and conflicts, makes connections between plot points, and generally does all of those other things related to the weird stories that pop into our heads.

During the “brain-writing” phase, our writer’s brains spin like crazy to queue up ideas for us to put on paper. Then we sit at the keyboard and do the “finger-writing,” during which we transfer those ideas onto paper (literally or figuratively) so they can be revised, edited, and cherished forever. (Or thrown out—that’s always an option.) While finger-writing only happens when we’re actually at our keyboards, brain-writing happens all the time—while we work, play, and even sleep.

(The only time brain-writing might actually shut down is when we watch television. I could be wrong on that, though. Remember: I said this was non-scientific.)

The concept of brain-writing explains why we sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a current or future project. Our ever-restless writer’s brains tend to spit things out on their own schedule. We have to write down those ideas immediately or they can be lost forever.

I don’t know about everyone else, but it seems there might be a practical limit to how much stuff my brain can queue up at one time. When I try to finger-write beyond the point in a story where my writer’s brain has brain-written, the quality of my prose (and my storytelling) tends to suffer. In Larry’s parlance, I can always tell when I’m “pushing crazy hard,” meaning that I’ll end up with stuff that either gets tossed out or requires a lot more work to hammer into shape.

Brain-Fingers

Guessing at Larry’s Schedule

The idea of brain-writing and finger-writing helps explain the pattern of production (both in quantity and quality) that Larry described in his post. What it sounds like is that, when he was writing part time, he was trying to cram his finger-writing into a few long sessions. Today, as a full-time author, he’s producing fewer words, most likely in shorter bursts.

Based on what I know about Larry as an author and a guy, if he’s producing between 2,000 and 3,000 words per day, he probably has a schedule that goes something like this:

8:00: Get up. Scratch. Eat something manly.
8:15: Shoot a moose using ammo he crimped with his own teeth.
8:30: Personal hygiene activities of various kinds.
9:00: Sit down at computer. Destroy Internet trolls. Drink the tears of his enemies.
10:30: Write stuff.
12:00: Eat a manly lunch. More scratching.
1:00: Wrestle a bear or blow something up. Whatevs.
1:30: Destroy a few more haters. Twerk on their disemboweled arguments.
2:00: Write more stuff.
4:00: Done. Go out and fell trees with karate. Bench-press a Camry. More scratching.

My point is that he’s probably writing his 2,000 or 3,000 words in a couple of sessions per day, with some time in between for his writer’s brain to front-load more content for his afternoon session. And then, of course, he has all evening and overnight (while his regular brain is fighting ninjas, plotting the overthrow of a small South American country, and possibly even sleeping) to do the brain-writing ahead of his finger-writing the next morning.

Personal Writing Retreats

Two Novembers ago, I did something that I’d always wanted to try during NaNoWriMo: a personal writer’s retreat. Since I live relatively close to Las Vegas, I threw some clothes in a bag and drove to Sin City for a veritable orgy of word-cranking. My goal was to see if I could produce 15,000 words in a single long weekend. I managed to do exactly that, but only by spreading my production across multiple short sessions.

On Thursday, I wrote for about two hours as soon as I got to town. Then I had some dinner, saw a show, and wrote for a couple more hours. Boom: 3,000 words my first night.

Friday morning, I went to Einstein’s for a bagel, caffeine, and another thousand words. I returned to my hotel, where I showered and watched a little TV, then cranked out another 1,000 words before the housekeepers knocked on the door. I went out and did some shopping, then camped out at a public library for a while, pounding my keyboard like a rented mule. I was able to generate over 6,000 words that day in six sessions. I did essentially the same thing on Saturday, slept the sleep of the dead and drove home on Sunday with a draft that was 15,000 words longer. And doggone it if many of those words didn’t turn out to be pretty good ones.

I guess I could’ve tried it a different way, chaining myself to the hotel desk first thing in the morning and saying, “You’re not allowed to eat, sleep, or do anything else until you produce 6,000 words.” Would that have worked? I don’t know. But that’s not how I work. And that’s the point.

By the way, I repeated the experiment again in 2016, with similar results.

Add Sessions, Not Hours

What I’m trying to say here is that it is possible to increase your production, but if your fingers get too far ahead of your brain, the stuff you produce might not be the best.

If you want to produce more, instead of adding hours to a single regular writing session, try adding another session to your schedule. If you’re a morning writer, tack on an hour at lunchtime and see if that helps. If you’re a night writer, try pounding out some words right after work, then returning to the keyboard after your writer’s brain has had time to get ahead of the story again. If you want a high-production weekend, you might do better with four sessions spaced out rather than a single marathon of frustration.

Your brain might be totally different from mine, but maybe not. Who knows? It never hurts to try.
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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Trudging Through Sludge

It creeps under doorways, rises through vents, incorporating everything and everyone in its path, zapping them of energy, physical and mental. It’s a destroyer of focus and productivity, causing its victims to write at a snail’s pace, stare at blank screens, and abandon projects. I call it the Sludge, and I’ve been trying to wade through it for ages now.

Sludge

I briefly escaped it when I traveled across the country to write in a cabin with a bunch of other writers (several of whom were also traveling to escape the Sludge.) I hoped that maybe while I was away, the Sludge would get bored and move somewhere else. But no, it had waited patiently back at home, and was there to greet me again when I returned.

I tried to convince it to go with threats of Camp NaNoWriMo word counts, but it laughed in my face and gave me the flu. It knows I can’t write when I have the flu. Then the dreaded Spring Break arrived and the two teamed up. There’s no wading through a combo of Sludge and Spring Break—what was originally the thickness of molasses hardened into clay. I’ve written very, very little during the last three weeks.

There’s a trick to fighting the Sludge though, if you’re patient. You know how in old movies, the protagonist would fall into quick sand, and the more they struggled, the deeper they would sink? Eventually they would realize that if they stopped struggling, they’d float back up to the top where they could reach a vine or outstretched hand that would bring them back to safety. The Sludge is kind of like that. The more you stress about how little you’re writing, the harder it becomes to write, until eventually, you’re not writing at all.

I’ve found that I do better if I stop thinking about it much. If I just ride along on the surface of the Sludge and let it carry me to wherever it’s trying to go, it will eventually float me to a branch that I can use to pull myself out. I stop worrying about word counts, and just ask myself if I’ve written at all that day. Or heck, if I’ve even opened up my document and looked at it, if I’ve thought about it at all while showering or doing the dishes—if I haven’t abandoned it completely, that’s good enough for now. And eventually, if I keep at it in just such a way, the Sludge will slink away for a while and let me get back to work.

Have you ever been taken over by the Sludge? How did you handle it? Or, if you’re currently trudging through it, I hope this has helped you to know you’re not alone, and eventually, you’ll find your way back out.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.

Plumber's Block - 2
A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.  Continue reading