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.

Writing (or not) After Loss

This post is going to be difficult for me to write. Difficult, because that’s what all writing has been for me lately–difficult. And for a very good reason. . . .

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For many people, writing comes as a solace during difficult times. When someone experiences the loss of a loved one, for instance—like I did this summer—writing can be a way to either escape or process emotions. I actually felt like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t even journal. The thoughts and feelings running through me were stuck inside my body and refused to exit onto the page. Fortunately, I had friends who were there to tell me this was okay, and not at all abnormal. They told me to take a break, take all the time I needed, and when I was ready to write again, I’d know it. And now I’m here to tell this to you, along with some other things that surprised me about writing after loss.

When I did eventually get back to writing (sporadically) about a month ago, I found I had a completely new perspective on my story and my characters. Interestingly, my main character’s father has died a month or two before the story begins, and oddly, it’s in a similar(ish) way to how my own dad died. This was not something that I added to the story after my own loss. Nope, it’s been that way since I first started writing it almost a year ago. Complete coincidence. However, I’ve been in my character’s shoes now, and I’ve realized the way my main character felt and acted in that first draft no longer resonates with me. It isn’t realistic anymore. So in the rewrite, I’ve been fixing that. And it’s (I hope) making my character so much richer. I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled about having this new perspective. If I could have gained it any other way, I would have preferred that. But I am grateful that I’m able to take this horrible experience and use it in a positive way. Silver linings and all that, I guess.

You may also find you’ve gained a new perspective toward your characters. You may find yourself adjusting things in ways you never would have thought to before. You may even find the story you’re currently working on doesn’t fit you at all anymore. That’s okay. Run with it. Fix it. Set it aside, if that’s what you need to do. My last finished novel—one I’ve queried and debated going Indie with, no longer fits me. At least, not right now. I’ve outgrown it, I guess you could say. As I see things now, I’m not likely to ever publish it. Or maybe someday, if I’m up to it, I’ll go back over it and make some major changes. And either way, that’s perfectly fine.

One more thing that has surprised me is how much less I’m censoring myself as I write. And by that, I mean I worry less about how my writing will be received by agents and publishers, and just write what I want to write. I write more for me now than I ever have before, and though I’m not completely oblivious to my future plans for this story, I’m pushing those concerns aside for dealing with when I actually get there. And what’s funny is, I thought I’d been doing this all along, but now I can clearly see that I hadn’t been. I’d been far too occupied with the dream of being published when I wrote my previous stories, that I’d become an anxious drafter, which made writing less fun and less satisfying. Now, the anxiety is gone. I’m not going to get into the psychology behind this, because I don’t completely understand why this has changed. But it has, and I’m good with that.

I’m telling you all of these things, not to give you any kind of road map or template for “when you experience loss, this is exactly how your writing will change,” because everyone experiences loss differently, and everyone writes differently. I’m telling you these things because they surprised me, and you may have some surprising experiences too. But whatever your experiences are, they are normal for you. And you may need to adjust some things, and that is perfectly okay.

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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.

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.

How to Write When You Just Don’t Wanna

Can we all just agree that the last two weeks have been the worst? I mean it. No matter what side of the political debate you fall on, the aftermath of this election has taken a toll on all of us.

I’m not here to get political, but I do want to address this toll and the effect it has had on our writing. Many—MANY—of my friends and colleagues have expressed how hard it has been for them to write lately. Many haven’t been able to write at all. I’ve seen several posts over social media bemoaning the looming end of NaNoWriMo and how behind everyone is because the election stress threw such a wrench in their ability to focus.

I’m one of them. At 22,000 words, I’m over 10k behind where I should be right now. I have massive amounts of writing to do if I’m going to hit 50k by the end of the month. I could just give up. I mean, it’s just an arbitrary contest. It’s not like my career is hinging on whether I can write 50k in 30 days. And everything else going on in the world right now feels much more important to me than finishing my draft.

Besides, I’ve failed NaNo before. Several times before. It’s not a big deal. But here’s the thing: at the beginning of this month, I made a promise to myself that I was going to REALLY DO THIS this time. I was going to finish this novel this month, come Hell or high water. Well . . . some might argue that Hell and high water are here, and now I’m struggling to keep my promise. I do still want to reach my goal, but when it comes to actually sitting down to write? I . . . don’t wanna.

I. Just. Don’t. Wanna. I mean, I do, logically. But I don’t have the mental energy for it. I’d rather take a nap, thank you very much, and hopefully not wake up until the year 2020 has come around.

Despite this, however, I’ve been managing to push myself through this writing slump, and so I thought I’d share some tips for how to get words down, even when you just don’t wanna.

donwannawrite

1) Allow yourself a few day’s break

This seems counter-intuitive. “Wait, so in order to get yourself to write, you . . . didn’t write?” Yup, I didn’t write. I gave my brain and emotions some time to try and work themselves out, with the promise that after a certain amount of time, even if I still didn’t feel like I was in a place where I could write, I would try to write anyway. That day came, and I turned off all social media, and told myself I couldn’t get back on until I’d written 4k. And amazingly, I wrote 4k. I’m still not sure how, but I did. And you probably can too if you really set your mind to it. But first allow yourself that break.

2) Break it down into small chunks of time

Not words. Time. You’ll probably surprise yourself by how much you’ll get written in that small amount of time. One thing I’ve done on days when I’m especially having trouble focusing, is I’ve set my alarm to go off once every hour. When it goes off, I drop whatever I’m doing (or not doing, as the case has been lately) and write for five minutes. If I hit flow, I’ll keep going. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s like a little shove on the back of the sled to get you to the start of the slope. Once you’re there, your sled will tip, and gravity will carry you the rest of the way down.

3) Multitask

I’ve become quite the fan of writing via dictation, and the bulk of my NaNo draft has actually been written via this method while I’m doing other boring tasks, such as folding laundry, picking up clutter, and waiting in the carpool lane to pick up the kids from school. Somehow, for me, I’ve been finding it easier to break through the I-don’t-wannas this way. It’s not for everyone, but if you haven’t tried it yet, I recommend you do.

4) Find a second creative outlet

Set aside some time every day to work on something else creative and/or relaxing that has nothing to do with your draft. Adult coloring books are great for this. Also crafts, such as knitting, crochet, or other needlework—basically anything that relaxes you but also stimulates the creative side of your brain. Sometimes when I do this, I’ll find my mind wandering off to work on my story without me, solving plot problems, coming up with new characters, all while in a nice, relaxed, state of mind rather than while stressing out over a blank page.

5) Don’t panic

If none of this works for you, and you just can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up about it. Stress is a nasty beast that sometimes takes longer to defeat than we would like. Allow yourself the extra time you need. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, go to bed at a decent hour, and take lots of bubble baths. Your ability to write has not left you forever. It will come back when it’s ready.

I do hope these strategies help you as much as they’ve been helping me. I will point out that they don’t work one-hundred percent of the time. Some days I just have to throw in the towel and admit that writing isn’t going to happen. But even if it works only a third of the time, that’s better than not at all. Also, if you have any tips of your own, please do share them in the comments. I’d love to give them a try.

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When 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.

Writing Stress? Try Visualization

Have you ever experienced writing stress? Writing stress occurs when the pressure of having to produce so many words a day builds to incapacitating levels. Sometimes writing halts to a standstill, which only exacerbates the stress. Writing stress has the effect of pulling in negative energy, which in turn decreases your enjoyment in writing, which then pulls in more negative energy. Some may call the result of this snowball effect a “block,” but I personally don’t like this term because it provides an image of a solid barrier that you have to leap over or squeeze around to bypass. Instead, there may be better ways to remove that barrier once and for all. 

When you find yourself in that negative cycle, yes, by all means take a break. But you can do it in a way that can harness some positive energy to help you more directly with your writing. 

Darci Cole had an excellent post last week about writing exercises that help keep your writing mind sharp. The following is a visualization exercise that I’ve adapted for writers who are down in the proverbial pit of despair and can’t envision a way out. I have a close friend who had a bona fide nervous breakdown because of an impending deadline, and after several counseling visits, she tried this visualization technique with success.

Visualization techniques may be used to harness positive energy to achieve your goals. They also help with your overall sense of well-being. These techniques are are sometimes called controlled/directed visualization or receptive visualization.

What you need:

  • A quiet, comfortable place
  • A block of uninterrupted time (20-30 minutes)
  • Ambient music or a writing playlist (whatever you choose, it shouldn’t be distracting but used to set the mood).

How to visualize:

  1. Select a single scene in your MS that you want to work on.
  2. Lie back, close your eyes, and breathe. Spend a few minutes listening to the ambient sounds or music.
  3. Imagine the physical scene unfolding in front of your mind’s eye first. Imagine the details as though you were there. What are your physical surroundings? Can you feel textures and pick up smells? Are there cues that you can use to pinpoint the time of day? Is it warm or cold? etc.
  4. Add your characters to the scene, but don’t let them run amuck in their physical surroundings — you are the silent director of this scene. If you’re writing from first-person, focus on the character who owns the POV in this scene. If not, view it as though you are watching a movie. Pay attention to how your character(s) is/are oriented within the scene. How are they interacting with their physical surroundings?  Listen to their trains of thought. Hear their dialogue. See if you can carry out the scene all the way through. This may take more than one sitting, but that’s okay! If you can vividly imagine any portion of your scene, you are doing great 🙂
  5. Don’t forget to breathe. Relax but stay focused. You got this.

After you’re done with the visualization, try sitting down and drafting some of what you just visualized. First focus on the aspects of the scene that were most vivid and real to you. Maybe it’s the scenery, or it could be the dialogue. Maybe it’s the thought process of your character. Whatever is most vivid and real in your head will probably be easiest to draft first.

Keep breathing and feel the positive energy and words flow. You can do it!

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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. Find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.