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.

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 Headshot Color

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.

Fingers vs. Feet—How NaNoWriMo Is Like Running a Marathon

Running and writing are at once complementary and opposing activities. Running requires a high level of physical activity; writing calls for a high level of cerebral activity. They are seemingly miles apart on the spectrum, but in reality, not at all.

For both, you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.

—Amanda Loudin, Washington Post

On October 7, 2017, I was fortunate enough to run the St. George Marathon for the very first time. Since I ran the race while I was in the middle of preparing for this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was impossible for me not to see the similarities between marathon running and marathon writing.

Not everyone enjoys running, of course, but over the past several years it’s become a big part of my life. It’s also become an integral element of my writing process. Even if you have no interest in ever running a marathon (or even a 5K), if you’re “competing” in the 50K/30.0 “marathon” of NaNoWriMo, you’re still a marathoner in my book.

Why? Because they’re similar in so many ways.

1. You must prepare.

Marathons aren’t run on race day. They’re run in the months (or years) of training that lead up to race day. The race itself is essentially the final exam after many hours of practice, and just like NaNoWriMo, it’s basically pass or fail.

There may be some people who can just waltz up to a marathon starting line and, without any training, run the race. These people are freaks of nature and we will not speak of them again. Similarly, there are people who can begin pecking away at their keyboards on November 1 without preparing at all and still finish a novel by November 30. These people are freaks of literature and should be applauded.

Nothing will guarantee that you’ll succeed in either endeavor, but preparation sure can help. If you’re running, preparation means miles—and lots of them. You can do tempo runs and hill work and fartlek training (it’s probably not what you think), but distance is the key. If you’re writing, you can do all sorts of things to get ready for your NaNoWriMo “marathon.” You can brainstorm, outline, “snowflake,” create character bios and write character monologues. You can work on developing good writing habits—after all, each novel you write is “training” for the next one. You can read extensively in your genre. All of this can help contribute to your success between the “starting gun” at 12:01 a.m. on November 1 and the “finish line” at midnight on November 30.

By the way, for all the talk about “writing sprints” during NaNoWriMo, I’m not a big fan. Slow and steady finishes the race, whether you’re running or writing. Lots of practice actually helps you win.

2. You must begin with the end in mind.

When starting anything monumental, it’s critically important to have a goal. With NaNoWriMo, as with a marathon, you have a built-in baseline. If you don’t write 50,000 words or run 26.2 miles in the time allotted, you can’t count it as a “win.” In race terms, that’s a “DNF,” or “Did Not Finish.” As a point of pride, nobody wants a DNF on their record.

For my first marathon, I was just hoping to finish, but I had more ambitious goals my second time around. My target was to get close to a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, with the understanding that I would go for a BQ in my next full marathon. I actually missed that goal, but only because I overshot it and ran the race faster than expected. That’s the good kind of goal-missing, and it’s more likely if you’ve put in adequate preparation beforehand.

Five years ago, I just barely managed to complete my first NaNoWriMo, verifying my word count at 11:55 p.m. on November 30. I prepared a little better the next few years, setting and reaching higher goals each time. You never know what you can actually accomplish until you really put the effort in. And whether it’s a race medal or a pile of words to craft into a finished novel, the result can be very rewarding.

Just keep thinking about posting this to all your social media accounts on December 1:

NaNoWriMo-Winner

3. It’s all about pacing and consistent effort.

I run pretty fast for an old guy, but I  know my limits. I wanted to be realistic when I was game-planning St. George, so I picked a pace I knew I could handle … and then pushed it just a little further. The difference between training pace and race pace comes from adrenaline and willpower. It’s amazing what the human mind and body can accomplish when they conspire to psych each other out.

The baseline target pace to win NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words over 30 days—and that’s if you write every single day. It’s a great idea to set your goal a little higher than that, and supplement your daily writing with some additional “marathon” writing sessions throughout the month. Then (and this is the key to finishing NaNoWriMo) make sure you stick to it.

If I don’t hit my goal on a particular day, I make up for it the next day. Or the next. You have to make it a priority, which almost always means giving up other things. I don’t watch TV during the month of November. I don’t read anyone else’s books. I even cut back on my mileage.

In addition to adrenaline and willpower, you’ll probably need caffeine. That’s a big component to success. Your mileage (of any kind) may vary, of course.

Here’s another trick: When you hit your daily goal, walk away. Literally stop in the middle of a sentence, close your file and shut off your computer. Stopping in the middle of things (in medias res, so to speak) gives you somewhere specific to pick up during your next writing session.

4. Sometimes, things go wonderfully wrong.

Anyone who’s done NaNoWriMo multiple years knows that feeling of nervous excitement that comes on the day before the challenge begins. It’s very similar to what a marathoner feels right before a big race.

My goal for the 2017 St. George Marathon was to finish in 3:30:00, which would bring me within five minutes of a Boston Qualifying time. When I boarded the bus for the starting line at 4:30 in the morning, I was feeling great about this target. Then I realized I was missing my safety pins. Then I lost my phone. Seriously. I managed to get new pins and find my phone, but then my watch lost contact with the GPS satellites just minutes into the race. Because of this, I had a difficult time tracking my pace. The result, and I’m not making this up, was that I ran the first half of the race much faster than I’d planned.

That might sound like a good thing, but actually it was a real concern. I honestly didn’t know whether I’d be able to maintain that pace for the duration of the race. My worry was that I’d bonk at mile 18 and have to walk the rest of the way. A race-ending injury was also a real possibility.

We’ve all had writing projects that go pear-shaped. Anything can go wrong, but sometimes, when things go wrong they actually go right. Here are a few possibilities, and the obvious solutions:

  1. Problem: There’s “no there there”—you simply can’t squeeze enough words out of the story idea you picked. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. (There’s nothing in the rules that your 50,000 words have to form a single, coherent project.)
  2. Problem: You lose interest in your story. Solution: Start a new page in your document and begin working on a different project. If you don’t have a new project at hand, free-write (using writing prompts, if necessary) until something catches your fancy.
  3. Problem: You get partway through your draft and realize your book is morphing into something completely different than what you planned. Solution: Go with it. In December, you can revise the earlier chapters to match the later ones.

5. You will feel self-doubt.

A I mentioned, when I hit the halfway mark on the St. George course I experienced a major moment of doubt. I must’ve looked a little lost, because a woman running beside looked over and asked me if I was doing okay. According to her race bib, her name was Bonnie. I admitted to her that I was going way faster than I had intended. Bonnie’s reply: “That’s a good thing, right?”

Maybe yes, maybe no. I told her I was worried I would crash and burn. Wisely, Bonnie asked me what my gut—and my body—were telling me. I did a quick self-check. I was feeling pretty good for having just run a pretty fast 13 miles. When I told her so, she looked over at me and said, “You got this. Go for it!” I’d never met this person before, but her little pep talk was the turning point for me in that race. I give Bonnie a lot of credit for helping me realize I could do what I’d set out to do.

Whether you’re doing your first NaNoWriMo or your tenth, at some point you’ll probably question whether you can finish or not. Find your Bonnie. Talk to a friend—writer or non-writer. Write your next 1,667 words and then treat yourself to ice cream. See a movie or get a pedicure. Then get back to your keyboard and finish your dang novel. You’ll thank yourself, afterwards.

One of the best T-shirts I saw at the St. George Marathon said “I can do hard things.” Writing 50,000 words in a month is hard. But you can do it.

6. The accomplishment is permanent.

st-george-medalThere’s no such thing as a “participation trophy” in competitive running. You don’t get anything just for showing up, but you often do get a medal for finishing. Similarly, you get exactly nothing for starting NaNoWriMo if you don’t finish it.

As with any competition, it’s all about the numbers. The registration cap for the 2017 St. George Marathon was 7,800 runners. About 6,000 made it to the starting line, and exactly 4,723 crossed the finish line under their own power, within the time limit.

A 26-year-old man from Lindon, UT, finished the race first, setting a new course record of 2:14:44. Yikes! The very last person to finish before the cutoff was a woman in her mid-40s from Idaho. She finished in 4,723rd place with a time of 7:27:29, and she was as deserving of his finisher’s medal as the guy who came in first. Both “won” in the sense that they ran the 26.2 miles in the required time frame. And nobody can ever take that away from them.

Numbers matter in NaNoWriMo, but mostly in determining who wins and who doesn’t. It makes no difference whether you write an hour a day or whether you produce those words in the first 24 hours (or even the last 24 hours). If you crank out 60K, 70K or even 100K words, you’re no more a winner than the person who writes exactly 50K. And once you’ve verified your words and received your winner’s certificate, it’s an accomplishment you can claim forever.

According to one estimate, about half a percent of the U.S. population (or around 1.6 million people) has finished a marathon. Believe it or not, being a NaNoWriMo finisher puts you into an even more exclusive club. According to the NaNoWriMo organization, roughly 384,000 people attempted NaNoWriMo last year, but only 34,000 won. (As far as I can figure, about 66 percent of participants were from the U.S.) The average win rate over the past five years is just 12.5 percent.

You can be part of that 12.5 percent. Don’t settle for being a NaNoWriMo starter. Be a finisher!

If you’re working furiously toward your 50,000 words, keep going! If you get stuck, I encourage you to put on your running shoes and go run a mile or two. Even if you don’t get the inspiration you need, you’ll be one or two miles closer to running your first marathon!

Fingers-vs-Feet

(For the record, I finished the 2017 St. George Marathon in 429th place out of 4,720, 40th in my age group, with a personal-record time of 3:16:57. I also qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon with a “cushion” of over eight minutes.)

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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.

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.

Cultivating A Mindset Of Ideas

One of the top questions we as writers get is “but where do you get your ideas?” I don’t know about you, but this question always gives me pause. I usually launch into a long, rambling story about the specifics of how a particular idea came to me, but if somebody is truly wanting to know a method for how I consistently develop ideas that become books… I don’t have one.

The truth is, my ideas are almost always completely random. The idea for my debut novel came from a children’s song. The idea for the next book I wrote after that came because I was annoyed about my husband always leaving shaving cream and stubble in the sink. The idea for the book that’s next up on my drafting docket came, I kid you not, from a typo that tickled my funny bone and seemed too serendipitous to pass up.

So when people ask me where my ideas come from, I usually end up responding with something generic, like They come from everywhere. Because what I’ve come to believe after many years of writing practice is this:

The important thing isn’t where the ideas come from; it’s what you do with them after they come.

And, as a corollary to that, what you do to encourage more ideas to come. For me, at least, the answer is to cultivate a writing mindset in which ideas are honored, and in which they’re free to grow and flourish. When I’m in this sort of a mindset, it doesn’t actually matter that much whether or not one idea is really viable enough to make a novel; what matters is that I use the ideas that come as opportunities to flex my creative muscles and teach my brain how to be receptive to, and how to build upon, the ideas it finds.

How, exactly, do I do that?

  1. I write them all down. Usually not right at the beginning—the first part of my writing process is always just thinking, and sometimes that thinking goes on for months. But once the idea gets to a point where it could be summed up in a sentence—even if there’s still only the barest bones of a story in it—then I make a note on it. I’ve used lots of filing systems over the years; as a teenager, I kept my ideas in notebooks or index card holders; as an adult, I have a Scrivener file where I have a corkboard with one card per idea. These ideas come from everywhere—dreams, random thoughts, funny occurrences, questions. The important thing is just to get it down. For me, at least, the act of creating space for a new idea in and of itself activates the part of my brain that churns new ideas out. In times when I’m making notes on a new idea, I’m much more likely to discover still more ideas waiting to be written.
  2. Cultivate curiosity; always ask “what would that book be about?” When an idea strikes my fancy, I take some time to ask myself what would a book about that be like? Usually, I spend a few months—or a few years—daydreaming about what that story might be, until I eventually have enough of a ghost idea to make notes on it. Plenty of the books I make notes on won’t ever be written, but they’re all fun to think about.
  3. Write regularly. Inevitably, the times when I’m working the most on one book are the times when other book ideas beat down my veritable door. Partly because creativity begets creativity, partly because when I’m in the middle of drafting something I’d give almost anything to work on something that’s not that book, I am never so full of interesting new ideas as when I’m actively working on something else.
  4. Stop and notice. As I mentioned in my introduction, my ideas come from literally all over the place, and often come accidentally. Many are small things that might not stand out much—except that over the years, I’ve trained myself to notice them, to hold space in my mind to welcome new ideas and think about what kind of story they might turn out to be. Two years ago, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, where wild blackberry brambles cover everything in the summertime, my husband and I rented an apartment in a complex that had a strange abandoned shed, completely overtaken by blackberries. The day my toddler and I discovered it I was struck by what an odd sight it was, and found myself wondering for months what the story behind it could be. Eventually, a fully-fledged story idea—for a book I’m hoping to write someday soon—grew out of that scene. Stopping and noticing can mean a lot of things for me: sometimes, as in the case of the blackberry shed, it can mean literally stopping and looking at something that’s in front of me. Other times, it can mean allowing my imagination to run away with me while I’m reading books or watching movies, dreaming of how I might have crafted that story differently. Still others, it just means paying attention to my thoughts and the things I strike my fancy—like the funny typo I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Whatever the case, this sort of intentional noticing is key, for me, to finding ideas that inspire me to write.

I may never know exactly how to answer a question about where I get my ideas. The creative universe is, after all, a funny thing. Still, by focusing on the how of cultivation and not the where of finding, I feel confident that I won’t spend too much of my writing life lacking inspiration!

 

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. 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 someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Success in Solitude

I come from a family of producers (not the Matthew Broderick kind). My dad has built dozens of houses, more cabinet sets than I can recount, and my mom makes quilts for fun (many of which she gives away), and is always experimenting with incredible recipes, making great and even gourmet quality food on a regular basis.

These are exceptional qualities, but for someone like me, they also presented complications. You see, through the amazing things that they made, I started to believe that greatness needed to be concrete. This is something I struggled with when I was in college, when my accomplishments were reading 8-10 Supreme Court cases a night (with dissents), remembering the reason for the decisions, and merging that with the intense Shakespeare character development, setting, plot points, structure, and meaning of a play a day.

This kind of thinking permeates the writing community as well. There are writing trackers and revision trackers and editing trackers. There are events put on my NaNoWriMo, sprinting challenges all over Twitter, 1k, 5k, and even 10k challenges. These are all very good, and I have participated in and utilized nearly all of them. It is through integrating these kinds of things that we can maximize our BIC-HOK (butt-in-chair hands-on-keyboard) efforts. These are the kinds of skills that allow writers to hit deadlines, to finish books, and to get them published.

And yet.

Even though I’m a competitive person

Even though I love the feeling of nailing a goal

Even though I will pump my hands in the air, and do a chair dance, and get a celebratory high five from my husband and a sticker/gif parade in Facebook messenger from my critique partners…

These aren’t the moments that I seek after as a writer.

In fact, these have been moments that have often thrown me off my writing game almost more than anything else (exceptions being a couple really hard rejections).

The moments that I seek after look a bit more like this:

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

The work here isn’t tangible. It isn’t something that will present me with a certificate, bragging rights, or that I can even track in regards to progression from day to day.

But after a critique, edit notes, spitballing ideas, or in-depth research, sitting in solitude has time and again proven itself as the means through which I am able to ground myself, my characters, my setting, my ideas into a place where I can step out of the whirlwind of what others think and create my story.

It can also be one of the most difficult things to secure for myself. The following are a couple techniques I have incorporated to have success in solitude.

1. Jot ideas down the old fashioned way. 

Many studies have shown that writing things down by hand helps people learn better, so it makes sense to implement this practice when I’m trying to learn about the characters, setting, plot, arcs I need to understand better to create better and before I jump in to fix them.

2. Don’t be afraid to stare at a wall. 

This probably isn’t a public place sort of exercise – people keep interrupting to ask if you are okay. This is a way to let everything in your mind shift around, back and forth, until settling on a place that feels almost right. I let the various ways the scenario COULD work play out in my mind, hitting pause and rewind as soon as I realize THAT way won’t work. Should the character run away? Stay and fight for what they want? What would happen to that character if they do? If they don’t? Who else would be impacted by THAT decision?

3. Do something mindless. 

I often joke that I can’t cut my hair because my best ideas come when I’m washing my hair or blowing it dry. It is when I am doing a task that I can complete on auto-pilot, that allows my mind to wander, but still merges some mindless physical activity. I know someone who is inspired by mowing a lawn and another who finds great ideas in a sink full of dishes.

4. Stop Counting, Measuring & Comparing. 

When I am in this phase, I scroll right on by the people who are celebrating their concrete accomplishments. I’m thrilled for them, but not in the head space where I can internalize what they’ve done. Again, I’m competitive so it is easy to feel like I’m falling behind when someone who signed with an agent the same week I did has a book deal, has edits, is “squeeing” over cover concept ideas. I am genuinely happy for these people, and I may even write down a note to go back and celebrate with them, but I can’t engage when in solitary mode. That time must be reserved for me, my story, my ideas, my timeline.

5. Create a Timeline. 

This seems to be in direct competition with what I just said, but the bottom line is I can make myself crazy diving deeper into my mind if I don’t set a time within which I need to have things sorted. I have had some experience with this and know that I usually need about a week of thinking, two to three days of researching, jotting, visualizing, rethinking, and then I need to start organizing my thoughts in some tangible manner. I will almost always transfer these notes into a digital form for easy access later, but the creation works really well for me on post-it notes. If an idea is bad? Rip it up and throw it away. Timeline funky? Pull up the post-its and rearrange them in a way that makes more sense. Ginormous hole in desired emotional arc? See what happens when I lengthen or tighten the time table, the character connections, etc. 
Just as a philosopher’s ideas only gain value in the world after they have been shared, the things I’m thinking through need to go through this process again and again. But fighting against the tendency to simply and always produce has allowed me the opportunity to create work I’m proud of with a significantly higher return on investment than constantly and continually producing ever has. 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Wait! That’s not their name!

My wife is an avid reader. When I say avid, I mean that this woman goes through at least 3-4 books a week. She reads pretty much any genre out there as long as it’s fairly clean. The one thing that I like being married to an avid reader is hearing her many pet peeves about authors. Why? Because hearing those pet peeves, helps me avoid them. I am going to touch on the one pet peeve that was driving my wife nuts a few weeks ago. It came to the surface because it wasn’t just one author that was having these issues. It was about 4! Her pet peeve: messy character naming.



I’m just going to come out and say that I too have had a problem with this before. Luckily for me, it was caught by both my wife and editor before I sent the book to anyone else. I had named one of my side characters Greg in previous chapters and then named him Henry in another. In my case, I actually wrote a whole scene in the wrong name and then jumped back to the original name I had before. Crazy messy, I know. It’s not that I set out on trying to confuse my readers I just got mixed up. It happens to the best of us. But what can we do to avoid messy character naming?

One thing that I do now is create a character list of all the characters I have in a book. When you get into a series, that list can get HUGE. That is why it is so-o-o important to keep track of these things in the beginning. I think it is important to list not only their FULL names (you never know if it will come up—I also include nicknames) but also their appearance and traits. This is what my character lists generally look like:

Main Characters (taken from The Dream Keeper Chronicles):

  • Parker Ryan Bennett: Age 14. Brown hair. Chocolate brown eyes. Gamer. Afraid of being tagged a loser at school. Has a hard time standing up for what he believes in because he’s concerned by the thoughts of others. Lives with his single mom: Elizabeth González Bennett.
  • Kaelyn (Kae) Marie Clarke: Age 14. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Dreamer. She’s been tagged a loser at school. She is into art. She knows who she is and isn’t afraid of being herself. She is an orphan living with her Aunt Zelda.
  • Gladamyr: Age unknown. Purple skin and purple hair. A dreamling: more specifically a reformed nightmare. He is a dream keeper. He is haunted by his past crimes against children and longs to be human.
Side Characters:
  • Dr. Gregory (Greg, Doc) Gates: Age 39. Brown hair. Green eyes. Child Psychologist. He is a down to earth guy who likes to have fun and play games. He is Parker’s father like figure.
  • Zelda (Zelly) Creighton: Age 35. Red curly hair. Blue eyes. Self-Proclaimed Psychic. She is very eccentric and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-girl. She is Kaelyn’s aunt and guardian. 
As your story grows, so will your list. Just remember to update it. I not only have a list for main characters and side characters but those that crop up here and there. I have a list of names the kids use while they are in school. I do this so when I need to name the kid that Jane thinks is cute in chapter two, I use the same name later on. As my wife would say, “it’s frustrating and confusing if you don’t get it right.”

Another tip:double check! As you go through your own personal edits make sure the names are correct. Compare it to your list and see if they match. If they don’t, fix them. Then make sure your beta readers or proof readers are double checking for you too. Because I know this has happened to me before, you bet my wife looks for it. In fact I did a messy character naming in my recent book and named a side character another name. Lucky for me, my wife grabbed it. I don’t know where that name even came from (it wasn’t on my list) but I made the mistake. I had named Rachel, Nichole. I not only named her Nichole but I spelled it two different ways: Nicole, and Nichole. So double check your spellings too.  It’s always good for others to catch your mistakes before many people do.


If you decide that you want to do a name change mid-writing, make sure you change the name in ALL your documents. If you name your main character Ronald and want to switch it to Neville, make sure you do a name search in your document as well as your character sheet. Also search for any nicknames associated with that character’s name. We don’t want Neville’s friends calling him Ron. Consistency is the key to becoming a great writer.


I hope this pet peeve have given you a lot to think about. Happy Writing!

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Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is an award winning author and illustrator. He has published five middle-grade books including the fantasy adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. Some of his picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures and Bean’s Dragons, which will be featured in an independent film releasing at the Sundance Film Festival. He has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works full-time as a freelance cover designer and formatter. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his four kiddos and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. You can find more about him & his books at: www.insidemikeysworld.com