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.

Setting Goals for Solitary Souls

We are so excited to welcome our newest contributor, Crystal Liechty!

This week, I made a vision board. It’s my first time undertaking such an endeavor and I felt a little silly the whole time. But I have several friends who highly recommend this process for goal setting so I decided to go for it.

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For those who don’t know, a vision board is when you find pictures or keywords for goals you have (a pile of money for more income; or a place you want to travel to; a new bookshelf, etc) and you arrange them on a poster, then hang it somewhere you will see it every day. The hippies say this shows the universe your intention and calls forth these things to manifest in your life. I just think it’s a good way to help you focus on what you want so you don’t get distracted by squirrels or Netflix marathons.

As I considered my goals and gathered pictures to represent them, it got me thinking. Goal setting is kind of a lonely process. I’m a very social person, so I feel the sting sharply. Here is my goal, I tell everyone, participate in it with me! But you can’t because my goals aren’t your goals. You can cheer me on and in fact, having cheerleaders in your life is very important. But you can’t set the goal for me. You can’t want the goal for me and you definitely can’t achieve the goal for me.

See what I mean? Lonely.

I recently read a study that said people who declare their goals to their community, via Facebook or whatever, actually fail at accomplishing those goals more often than people who don’t announce them. I was surprised by this because in my mind, announcing goals to those around you would make you more accountable, wouldn’t it? But that’s not the reality. Once you shout out your goal and get all the “huzzahs!” and “you can do it!”, what’s the point after that?

Maybe goals are supposed to be lonely, solitary things.

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Guess what is also a very lonely undertaking? Writing. And to write, you have to set goals. Lots of goals. And then some more goals if you accomplished the first goals. (Someone keep track of how many times I use the word “goal” in this blog.)

If you’re an introvert, this prospect is probably less terrifying to you. I’m an social vampire, feeding off conversations, Facebook likes and retweets. Perhaps that’s why I constantly find myself in a goal whirlpool, struggling to know what I want to do next. Struggling even more to get myself to do it.

But fear not, my fellow social butterflies! I have found a few tricks to escape the desolate wasteland that is writerly goals. One is writing communities. I love my various online writing groups, where people ask writing questions or seek life advice and just in general, human together. Accountability partners are another way to lessen the loneliness. I have a great one who checks in with me daily and makes me feel like someone out there sincerely cares if I write 1,000 words today.

Writing conferences are an extrovert writer’s holy land. I’m never more inspired or fired up than after a good writers conference. They can fuel me for months and I probably get more done immediately after a writers conference than any other time of the year.

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Only time will tell if my vision board helps me. Only practice will help me learn to set and follow through on my goals despite the loneliness. Only good friends will keep me sane through it all.

How do you  handle the loneliness of goals?

Yes.

We are delighted to welcome our newest contributor, Veeda Bybee! 
In a TED talk given last June, poet, educator and author Kwame Alexander opened his speech referencing a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin confirming that language has the power to alter our perceptions. Alexander says, “Scientists believe that a single word has the power to change our reality. And that word is, ‘yes.'”
He goes on to explain how when we say yes to ourselves, we alter perceptions. We create our own reality instead of allowing someone else to do it for us.
For 2018, I want it to be a Yes time. I’ve seen people post on social media about their word for the year and this will be mine: Yes
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I love it’s optimism, the way the word lingers on the lips. For me, it connotes positivity, like there is something to hope for.
Here are three things I’ve decided to say ‘Yes’ to this year:

1. Yes to being brave.

In small and big things. Example, I am going to find the courage to commit to my alarm clock. For months, I have contemplated a Kate DiCamillo writing schedule. This children’s book author wakes up at 5 a.m., writes a few pages and is done for the day before nine. She starts off her day doing the thing she wants to accomplish the most. 2018 is the year my alarm rings and I wake up not feeling negative, but excited to get to work.

2. Yes to self-care.

For writers, this can often mean saying no. In her book, The Year of Yes, television producer, screenwriter and author  Shonda Rhimes writes of the importance of making this boundary for yourself. Rhimes writes,
“Everyone knows how difficult it is to say no. It’s one of the reasons why people seem to be comfortable asking you for favors they have no business asking you for.”
When you understand that you deserve good things, saying ‘yes’ to using ‘no’ becomes easier. This year, I will make time for myself by saying yes to not doing things that don’t work for me.

3. Yes to service.

On the flip side, I also recognize the importance of helping others. I’m at the point in my life where my youngest child is in preschool and I can finally volunteer at my children’s school more. One of my favorite things to do is reading with the first grade class.
As someone who writes for children, being with this age group is prime research. I see what books they gravitate toward and feel their joy (or frustrations) with reading. It’s also a lot of fun to be with my own kid and this service has made me a better parent and writer. I’m going to continue to say yes in the classroom when the time works for me.
Yes doesn’t have to be your word for 2018. However, what are some things you would say ‘Yes’ too?
For me, I am excited for the possibilities of the next twelve months. Will this be the year where I create my own reality?
The answer: Yes.
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veedaVeeda Bybee grew up in a military household, collecting passport stamps and dreaming of castles in far off places. A daughter of Asian immigrants, she has been writing and drawing pictures since she was seven years old. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. A former journalist, she lives with her family in the Mountain West where she reads, writes and bakes.

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Don’t Forget to Celebrate

I love the beginning of the year, the renewed bout of energy, and the eagerness I usually feel to start working on something new. I’m one of those people who make New Year’s resolutions, and I’m very determined in sticking to them throughout the year¾except with sugar. I have yet to succeed in eliminating sugar from my diet for more than five months, my current record.

When it comes to writing goals though, I’m very good at staying on task.

What I’m not good at is at celebrating victories (big or small), and recognizing my own progress.

Picture1Example: last January I graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Earning my MFA degree was one of the hardest things I ever achieved. At the end of the ride, I was euphoric, fueled by adrenaline and positivity. Except for when I tallied myself against the expectations I had for my career at the beginning of this journey. At the time of my graduation, there were no editors vying for my work, and a part of me saw this as a failure.

It was unfair of me to expect this. The MFA was a journey to improve myself as a writer, and I was under the (unfounded) impression that a book deal, or many, would be the validation I needed to prove to myself that all the money, time, and effort I’d dedicated to my craft had been worthy.

It was unfair of me to judge my writing through the sleep deprived, emotional eyes of a person about to deliver a lecture and have a reading of the most personal writing of their life in front of the whole college. But that was what I did.

It’s no wonder that after my graduation I had the deepest bout of depression of my adult life. After reaching for a goal for so long, and achieving the pinnacle, the drop wasn’t a pretty sight.

However, during these months I did one thing right. even though I was depressed and unmotivated, was keep writing. Keep at the habits I had established during the two years of my graduate program. When I couldn’t read because nothing interested me, I got my fill of story through the many TV shows I’d neglected the last twenty-four months (GOT FTW!). Slowly, as I kept writing, something happened.

I understood that I had grown as a writer. For the first time, I enjoyed my new writerly muscles. In my mind, I found writerly tools I didn’t know I had. I knew how to use them too.

When I had to write outside of my comfort zone, or under a short deadline and I could turn in a first draft that in my previous life would have been a fourth or fifth draft, I saw my improvement. The time, money, and effort weren’t for nothing. They made me strong in ways I hadn’t recognized before.

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This year, my resolution, my wish is not to undervalue my journey, not to ignore the small victories, not to compare myself against others. I’m going to celebrate each victory (there will be sugar), and I’m going to keep on keeping on. I’m already feeling good about 2018 because actually, I can!

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YamileMendezYamile (prounounced sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is an immigrant writer and reader, a dreamer and fighter, a Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, a 2014 New Visions Award Honor Winner, and one the 2015 Walter Dean Myers Inaugural Grant recipients. Born and raised in Rosario, Argentina (cradle of fútbol), she now lives in Alpine, Utah with her husband, five children, and three dogs, but her heart is with her family scattered all over the world. Find her on twitter: @YamileSMendez and online: yamilesmendez.com.

Inspiration 101

Any writer will tell you that when inspiration strikes, it feels miraculous. The planets align, all your neurons fire in tandem, and nature trills along with your giddiness. I dare say that any person who becomes a writer did so because they were struck by inspiration. A story idea. A character. A setting. A magic system. What led us all to the keyboard is the same—inspiration.

But inspiration can be fickle. Like any emotional high, it is special and rare. When we as writers have pages and pages to fill, how do we compel inspiration to come and stay a while?

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Here are some suggestions.

  • Sit at your computer and write. Don’t worry about punctuation, word choice, or sentence structure. Let the words flow out in a messy jumble and see where they lead.
  • Break up with your keyboard. Leave your house, and better yet, leave your cell phone behind. Unplug, go for a walk, run errands, visit a friend, grab a meal, experience nature. Do something you’ve never done before or that has nothing to do with storytelling. This can be tough because so much of our lives circles back to our art, but set aside “Me Time”. You deserve it.
  • Consume enriching stories. Read, read, read. Binge-watch an acclaimed TV series. Go to the movies and absorb yourself in the big screen. Take in and digest well-crafted stories as well as the not-so-great ones. Think on what you would improve. Let these ideas permeate and simmer.
  • Set a deadline. Require a certain number of words/hours from yourself a day, week, month, etc. This goal should be attainable. It should motivate you, not cripple your process. Adjust these expectations as you go. Forgive yourself for falling short. Reward even the smallest accomplishment. Be open to new ideas for how best to meet your deadlines.
  • Limit social media. Browse the internet, but don’t allow your Facebook feed to distract you for hours on end. You may find inspiration there, but is it more likely to come when you’re not irritated over someone’s political rant or snorting at sarcastic Disney memes. By all means, build your online platform. But don’t let that work infringe on more reliable forms of brainstorming activities.
  • Have a backup art. Tethering your creative self-esteem to one manuscript could backfire. Create or build something else. Bake, quilt, sew, woodwork, draw, sing, dance, paint. Do whatever fills your spirit and helps you feel accomplished.
  • Don’t play the comparison game. If so-and-so drafted a book in two weeks, great for them! Who cares if your first draft took two years? Respect your creative process by not forcing it to look like someone else’s. Write like you. Your stories are an extension of yourself. Why would you try to put that unique thing of beauty inside someone else’s box? Nothing kills inspiration quite like letting outside forces shame or discredit your hard-earned work.
  • Be resilient. The publishing industry will throw a lot of unexpected twists at you, both upbeat and negative. (Pro tip: the good news can drain your creativity too.) Be ready to combat highs and lows with perseverance and remain steadfast in your determination to achieve the goals that drive you. Protect your creative process vigilantly and without regret. Wield your positivity like a shield and don’t let anything harmful get through. As you do this, you will still take hits, but your recovery time will shorten. You’ll become better practiced at staying centered and won’t let the ebb and flow moments slow you down.
  • Your health is number one. Don’t sacrifice sufficient sleep, proper nutrition, or suitable recreation to satisfy the fictional perception that writers are moody, self-destructive caffeine addicts. The writing process is a mental marathon. Keep your physical faculties conditioned for optimum performance.

Inspiration does not strike once and recede like a tsunami. Inspiration comes little by little during routine events until it accumulates into a solid, recognizable idea. Inspiration comes by living.

This New Year, I hope you can keep your creative wells full and respect your personal writing process. I guarantee that inspiration will lure you back to the keyboard when you are primed for another story.

Which of these conduits to inspiration work best for you? Is there another method you’d like to share?

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Emily R. King is a reader of everything and a writer of fantasy. Born in Canada and raised in the U.S.A., she’s perfected the use of “eh” and “y’all” and uses both interchangeably. Shark advocate, consumer of gummy bears, and islander at heart, Emily’s greatest interests are her four children. She’s a member of SCBWI and an active participant in her local writers’ community. She lives in Northern Utah with her family and their cantankerous cat. You can find Emily at emilyrking.com

The Lie We Write On Ourselves

You are a story.

You are a human-shaped piece of paper. There are doodled facts on your elbows, and virtues and vices have been etched into your finger bones. There are blazing truths rattling echoes through your ribcage, and fragments of about-to-be-told story lodged in your lung tissue.

People have written on you without your permission, and you’ve erased some of the scribbles you’ve realized aren’t true. But there’s this itchy spot between your shoulder blades where people carve hard-to-reach lies sometimes, and you can’t find an eraser big enough to scour yourself all the way clean.

  • You’ll never be as good as [insert name].
  • Writing is just a hobby.
  • Books are entertaining, but don’t you want to do something that really matters?
  • You need a thick skin to make it. You’re not tough enough.

On and on the lies go. Some are just scratches that heal over after hours or days. Some dig deep, clawing through skin and sinew till they’re so far inside you it’s hard to know where they end and you begin. Some are written by others, but the most heartache and hurting ones are in handwriting you recognize all too well.

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The only antidote to a lie is the truth, to write over the falsehoods till they disappear altogether. So pick up your pen and write those blazing truths down. Write them deep, and write them true.

  • You are finding newer and truer words. You are building worlds and breathing life. You are pulling magic out of the sheer white nothing of the empty page. You are a creator. You are the pop-sizzle-crackle of the new and the now. You are enough.
  • Creating brings you a measure of joy you can’t find anywhere else. You are meant for this. Whether you devote zero minutes or hundreds each day, this is a part of the entirety of who you are.
  • Stories inspire empathy—they help us learn compassion. Stories inspire imagination—they help us see the legion of possibilities stretching out before us. They matter. Oh, how they matter.
  • You are a human, not a dragon. Your skin is beautifully vulnerable. You are allowed to hurt. You are allowed to struggle. You’re allowed to stop for a while and start again when you’re ready. You’re allowed all the human qualities those itchy lies between your shoulder blades want you to shun.

Your words are the answer to the itch and the etch. Use them to tell yourself all the truths the paper of your soul is hungry for. Tell yourself who and what you are. Tell yourself who and what you have it in you to be. Don’t give lies co-author credit for the story of your life. Don’t let small minds and small words steal the wide and the stretch of your aspirations.

2018 is coming, an infinite blank canvas, waiting for words and stories only you can tell. Sometimes they’ll come in dribbles, sometimes in monsoon-level pourings, but whenever and however they come, they’ll be yours. They’ll be you.

You are a story. Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t be written.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

 

Unlock Writing Successes Through Planning

I like to think ahead.

Nope, that’s a lie.

I can’t help but think ahead. If something is coming up on a weekend and I’m not sure how it is all going to unfold by Tuesday – Wednesday at the latest – I start getting antsy. I want to know when I need to leave or what the responsibilities are, if everyone who is involved is aware and prepared.

Which means I’m looking at how to make 2018 better than 2017.

Yes, already.

I haven’t started planning yet, but I have been taking windows of time to reflect and understand. I’ve been taking time to be honest with myself, about how I used the time and resources available to me, how I can be better with them in the future. Today, I’m going to walk you through my process just a bit.

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Context

The first question I have to answer for myself is where am I with my writing. The short answer is agented and on submission. But that’s not the honest answer.

I’ve been spinning my wheels instead of writing. I’ve been giving myself the excuse to watch an episode (or three) of The West Wing. While I have outlined two stories and have a pretty solid idea of where they are going, I haven’t been doing the work that I know I need to do to get them written.

I don’t know where my ambition went. I don’t know why I’m not writing. This is not going to bode well for making next year better.

Goals

There is really no reason that I can’t have several completed manuscripts in my proverbial file cabinet right now. I know lots of authors who sign with a publishing house and then get all sorts of requests for more. If I am really thinking ahead and because I know that I have several story ideas, my goal needs to be to complete.

But that’s too broad. It’s like lose weight (yep, that’s another one). Sure, it’s a nice thing to say, but until there is a measurable way for me to mark my progression, it’s not going to happen.

The goal needs to reflect dedicated steps that will assist in accomplishing. For me, I need to write. Probably every day. Probably at least 500 words a day. I need to honor the time I do have to write, be true to myself and my craft, and write.

Needs

I need a dedicated ritual to prime the writing part of my brain to work. There is something about me showing up in a particular space that allows me to really hone in on the work that needs to be done. I have a ritual when I get up and get going in the morning. I have a ritual when I get to work. I used to have a writing ritual, and there were several mental and physical and emotional curve balls that made me duck and cover instead of stand and hold my ground. I need to get back to where I was, and that will only happen if I commit to something and then tell my team.

Team

I have a few teams that I’m on when it comes to my writing. The first is my family. They know how to honor what I need to do, know how to solve their own problems a lot of the time, know that writing is important to me. I need to get back to communicating when I am taking time for my craft and when I’m taking time to be a mom and wife. I need to make sure that I do both.

I need to communicate better with my CPs. They are strong, driven, creative women who are pursuing the same thing as me. They are also kind and generous, which is the very best thing to be, and sometimes a little enabling. I need to recommunicate that they have permission to give me the evil eye if I don’t have pages for them to critique. I need to lean on them as I would hope they would know they could lean on me.

I also have an incredible agent. I can share frustrations and ideas with her, can ask for her professional opinion on matters related to the submission process and have learned much through the editing she has shared with me already. One of the big lessons I learned this year, that I need to carry forward through the next is that asking questions is okay, and that as her client, I’m not bugging her when genuine concerns exist. In fact, that’s one of the hats she is happy to wear.

Finally, I am on my team. It sounds strange and perhaps a little obvious, but I am really good at taking care of things that people expect of me and if it comes down to what others want vs what I want, I will nearly always take care of others first. It is sometimes the necessary choice. It isn’t always the best choice. I need to remember that working for me and on my craft is one of the reasons I am able to share with others: I have to be a fulfilled person myself before I can hope to genuinely contribute to the lives of others.

So, as you are looking forward to a new year, what is your present context, goals and needs? Who is on your team? How do you plan to improve in 2018?

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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. A co-founder of Thinking Through Our Fingers, she is the managing editor of the writing-focused website as well as a contributor to Writers in the Storm. She is passionate about helping women nourish their creativity and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, where she serves as a board member. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.