Habits and Challenges

I’ve been blog-stalking Peter M. Ball for basically forever at this point. And for just as long, I’ve read his conversations around organising and understanding your writing habits, and figured that was something for people way, way smarter than me.

It’s been easy to shit all over that idea that writers can actually own their writing habits, and take charge of their writing. After all, we’re meant to be chasing that ever elusive muse, right? If you’re not waiting for inspiration to rain down upon you like glitter, you’re not really a writer, right??

Writers, like all creatives, have some bullshit ideas hidden in the nooks and crannies of their career goals, both in terms of the art and business of being creative, and in terms of our personal ability to rise to the challenges that show up. I am rife with silly ideas (did you notice that bit about me not being smart enough, because hi, that’s a RIDICULOUS idea). And Peter is 100% right when he says the best way to write more, and better, is to get those stupid ideas out of your gorram skull. Like Van Gogh saying ‘If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced’, but with more of a ‘sit your ass down and write, dammit’ vibe. 

Peter M. Ball is the snarky, grumpy as hell older brother I never knew I needed, and if you don’t read his blog, you really, really, really need to. NEED. TO.

So, here’s the thing: this year, I’ve decided to actually try Peter’s suggestion of setting actual, achievable goals, monitoring how much I write each day, and how long it’s taken me to get it done.The glorious Matthew J. Hellscream and Melanie Edmonds both pointed me towards the word trackers they use- pay as you like arty, gorgeous spreadsheets by Svenja Gosen. And while, let’s be honest, I struggled to choose between the Black Widow, Winter Soldier, and Peggy Carter art, I finally settled on some girl power, and got the hell to work. I’m still getting the hang of this monitoring business, but so far? Wow. The shift in my focus and motivation has been staggering.

Remember: up until this point, I’ve been a sporadic writer of fiction, with massive goals and no sense that I’m anywhere near achieving them. There’s a reason I talk about my writing in terms of gamboling about like a hyperactive bunny.

My 2017 challenge is 2k a day. I know I can hit that target if I try, without it being too painful- I hit almost that amount daily during Nanowrimo, so kicking it up a few hundred extra words daily isn’t that big a deal. It’s a low-ball number for me, given the numbers I can hit during The Rabbit Hole (which makes me feel guilty because most of my friends average about 1k daily, and I’m still learning how to not feel guilty about shit like that).

And what I’m realising is that the more I sit my ass in a chair and write, the less time it takes to reach that 2k. There’s some room to wiggle here- if I’m having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, then it’s like pulling teeth that have been cemented into place. Same if I’m overtired, not feeling well, or working on transcription work. But when I’m writing fiction, and I’m in a good mental and physical space- boom. Done. I can churn out 2k in the hour and a bit before my flatmates get up of a morning, all the while playing with my ridiculously attention-seeking cat. And then, in the teensy spare moments of the day, I write a little bit more.

The more I do it, the easier it gets. I know writers say that a lot. But until now, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t just one if those shitty things people say because everyone else says it.

With 2k a day, the overall goal is 730,000 words. Which is, let’s be honest, a gorram terrifying number to see staring you down from the top of a tracking sheet. It’s not much better when you break it down to the monthly goals: the goal amount for January was 62,000 words.

But here’s the thing I honestly didn’t get until I started this challenge: it piles up, far quicker than I thought it would. And that’s true even though there’s been days this month where I haven’t written a damned thing. Even with those gaps, on the days I’ve written, I’ve yet to have a day where I’ve hit 2k exactly, and stopped. There’s always been a few hundred words more. Or a thousand. Or, y’know, way more.

Participating in The Rabbit Hole at my local writers centre threw 40k into the mix in three days. Even with a few days of not writing at all, I’ve well and truly kicked past that original goal. Yesterday, I decided that I was close enough to 90k that I might as well bump it up to there. Today, having blasted past that goal, I’ve decided to try for 100k.

Or, to put it another way: after one month of sitting my ass down and focusing, I’ve written more useful words in the span of a month than I did in the whole of 2016. That scares me a little.

Partly, it’s scary because holy shitballs, how much time have I wasted and how much more prolific would I have been with some gorram disclipine? Partly it’s because I know those are the kind of figures that will not be sustainable. I’m having fun now, and my brain (other than the Rabbit Hole days) hasn’t been exhausted by this effort, but I know these are not the numbers I’ll be pulling every month. Which is scary, because my brain needs constant reminders that this isn’t going to last and that’s totally, completely okay.

By the end of the month, I should be just shy of 1/7th of my way through my yearly goal. Which, wow. I don’t even know what to do with that information, right?

But, yes, basically, this is me:

james-spader-boston-legal-2

 

 

Advertisements

Going Old School

There’s a moment that I’m pretty sure every aspiring and emerging writer goes through at some point on their expedition along this particular waterway (and because it’s been a good writing day, I’m not even gonna call it Shit Creek). There comes a moment when you find yourself thinking about the way you do things, and the reasons why you do them that particular way. It’s either going to drive you crazy, or be a lot of fun. It’s taken me a while to find the fun, but here we are.

I don’t know it all, clearly. But what I’m realising, especially after way too many conversations with other writery types, is that as much as I love typing, it doesn’t always love me.

I’m queen of the short attention span when there’s a screen in front of me. As I type this, I have 14 tabs open, and I’m fighting the urge to check Facebook. Again. And, oh, maybe I could find a picture for another post I’m part way through writing, or I could reply to that email I’ve just remembered, or talk to X about Y. It’s gotten to be habit to flick through to something else, to jump between tasks, and more often than not forget to wander back and finish things.

There’s always something to do, watch, listen to, reply to, or be distracted by. That’s the whole point of the internet, really.

Put me in a room with other writers, and I can rack up a hell of a word count. Leave me alone in a room with a laptop, and more often than I’d like, I’ll spend the time pissing around online and leap-frogging between things. Funnily enough, that’s not helping me get moving towards my goals.

So it’s got to go.

I’ve been trying a sneaky kind of experiment. I’ve gotten myself a nice, sturdy journal, and some pens I like to write with (yes, I’m an unapologetic stationery fiend who loathes certain pens and paper textures), and they’ve been living in my bag for about a month and a half now.

Has it worked?

Kinda. The problem, of course, is that when you pack up and move everything you own, and have to scrub clean the new place like you’re cosplaying pre-fairy godmother Cinderella, it doesn’t actually leave a lot of time to write.

From a scientific viewpoint, this hasn’t been well-timed, and the findings will be skewed because of it. More time will be needed to get a bigger picture of whether it’s worked or not. But what I do know is this:

  • Throwing a journal and pen into my bag has meant that in spare moments (like waiting for an appointment), I’ll tend to pull that out to work with, rather than jumping on my phone. Unless I’m stressed, at which point I’ll jump on Facebook and procrastinate.
  • Adding the date to pages is letting me see how productive I’ve been each day.
  • Titling each new project as I start on it hasn’t really been helpful, given the index. But I have the sneaking suspicion it’ll do something eventually.
  • Adding an organisational system is a pain in the ass, but it’s really helpful. It’s not exactly oodles of fun to sit and number every page before getting started, or to set up an index, but it’s really, really helpful later on at making sense of what I’ve done. This is what’s screwed me up on other attempts at hand writing- I’d flit between things, and come back and try and figure out where the different bits of, say, a specific story, were in the chaos of the notebook. Having a system has stopped the overwhelm that generally shows up and sabotages my efforts.
  • Colour coordination helps, too. I alternate between blue and black pen so I can see how much I’ve written each day. But if I switch projects during, say, a blue day, I’ll alternate blue pens. I have darker and lighter pens, so my easily distracted brain can clearly see that I’ve switched to another project now when I’m too lazy to read the titles.
  • My brain is getting bored with the whole dual toned approach, and I think I’ll need to add more colour somehow.
  • Being a ridiculous journal hugger helps. I want to move on to my next journal because it’s pretty and new, so I’m pushing myself to write more. But because I don’t want to hand write rambling crap, I’m thinking harder about what I’m writing.
  • Hand writing makes me pay more attention. It’s hard to delete pen, and I can’t rip pages out because I’m pedantic like that, so I tend to slow down, and think harder about what I’m trying to say and how to say it. That’s never a bad thing.

 

Progress, not Perfection

It’s been a while. Since last I wrote, I’ve moved across town. Packing hell, cleaning hell, unpacking hell. Spotting the theme?

I have made ‘progress, not perfection’ my mantra, in the way most severely overwhelmed people latch onto an idea that stops them crying or raging. There was an ant infestation in my old place. Not the sort where you see one or two, kill them, and you’re done. The sort with scarily big nests throughout the house. Don’t get me wrong, any time I saw an ant, I’d killed it. I waged the sort of war against bugs that made no sense to those around me. Pretty sure the old place is held together with layer upon layer of bug spray at this point. I’d thought I was on top of the problem, and I was so incredibly wrong it’s laughable only to keep from crying. An external hard drive full of writing, and all my uni lecture audio? Ant nest. It’s still a source of rage.

The packing had issues, clearly. The move had issues, too. The sort of issues that mean that the bond cleaners should be choked with their own (clearly unused) brooms. We’ve been here shy on three weeks now, and the place is slowly becoming liveable.

Not homey. Not perfect. Liveable.

It wasn’t when we arrived. The ‘professional clean’ was a half-assed vacuum. That’s it. Someone paid $900 for the sort of vacuuming perfected by recalcitrant children. There are cigarette burns in the carpet that weren’t there on our original inspection. There was grease all over the kitchen, the sort that’s been there so long that everything needed multiple hard-core steam cleans to stop feeling sticky and horrible. It’s still not all gone. There were grease caked trays in the oven, and even dried blood drops meandering between the front patio and kitchen.

All in all, ick.

What I expected was professionalism, and the ability to walk in and maybe give a quick once-over before putting things in place and moving on. I hadn’t expected day 4 to see us still finding spots of horrible grossness (under the kitchen bench. Yellow unidentified former food objects), or still being left waiting for the real estate to actually do something beyond sass us. I hadn’t expected it to be over a week before my cat could move in, or to still have a garage full of boxes three weeks in.

Progress, not perfection.

We like to think that everything will happen in the time frame we want. I will have moved into the new place fully in days, not weeks. I’ll write a good quality draft in a month. I’ll have my whole life figured out and awesome before I’m 30. 

And then we walk in and see the blood spatter, or we realise our little story requires a heap of research- or the sort of nuances that take time to develop, or we talk honestly to the people we know who are over 30 and realise that exactly no-one has this stuff totally sorted (even life coaches and psychologists have bad days, after all).

That clearly defined boundary showcasing exactly when we’ll be happy (or even just less ragey) dies in that moment, but most of us ignore the growing stench and keep trying to make it work anyway. It’s gonna work, I just need to stay up all night writing/ cleaning/ organising! Every night. Until it’s done. I can do this! I HAVE to do this, or I have failed in some vague and baffling way!

If you’ve ever tried the perpetual all-nighter approach, you’ll know it ends in sobbing, tantrums, sugar poisoning, and collapsing in a heap at the absolute worst time. And what you do manage to achieve isn’t what you’d call high quality work. You’ve trashed your body and addled your brain for something you’ll have to work your butt off just to make functional.

We tend to think of perfection as an instant kind of deal- we want it now, not later on. The thought of slowing that process down and focusing on making progress? Ugh. Who wants that? I want to be unpacked, settled in, and in a routine now, not over a month into the lease. But that’s the more likely outcome. There are boxes piled in the garage, and more to come by the sounds of it (here’s to sorting out art supplies in the very near future!!) My beautiful writing desk is piled with stuff needing to be organised and put away.

Anna Kunnecke, a totally kick ass human being, had a brilliant tip for feeling less overwhelmed when it all goes ass-over and chaotic. Have a look at the way you feel about the chaos in the house (or that to-do list for writing that I know you have hiding in a drawer somewhere). There’ll almost always be something that makes you crazier or more anxious than everything else.

For me, it’s the kitchen benches and my desk. If the kitchen is cluttered, I’ll avoid it and ‘forget’ to eat. If the desk is messy, I feel guilty and shitty because my adopted Dad gave it to me, and I hate seeing it in anything less than pristine condition. It actually pains me.

Anna calls it making white space. In my more frustrated moments, I tend to think of it as breaking the spine of the problem. Have I mentioned being crazy overwhelmed lately These little areas of sanity stand out in the chaos, and subconsciously, when they’re in view, we feel a bit better about the overall chaos around us. It’s not the end of the world, because there are bits that don’t suck. The important bits don’t suck.

It’s the same with writing. Nail that bit that drives you craziest, and watch the rest begin to make more sense.

Progress, not perfection.

As for me, I think I’m going to curl up in bed with a good, easy to read, book.

 

 

 

A Penmonkey’s Planner System

I talked recently about planners, and using them to get organised, and I mentioned quite a bit about what I found worked well for keeping my freelancing brain from exploding, and what became rage-making far too quickly.

What I didn’t really mention was how I make a single book that lives beside me actually work for freelancing that involves events, reviews, and research.

This is what my freelancing life looks like: I get a call asking if I’m free on a day, and I need to quickly check, and decide if I can juggle enough non-work stuff around so that I can say yes. Having really clear, obvious signposting that I have stuff on makes it so much easier for me.

My brain responds to colour better than it does with other systems, so that’s my overarching way of keeping track. I figure, maybe it’s easier to show you what I mean. Warning: dodgy photos ahead (I’ve had no time to organise pretty ones- sorry!)

2016 planner

This is the planner I’m working with at the moment, which I got from Kikki K because I have a thing for teals and blues at the moment. The planner before it was leather, which was beautiful but useless in a handbag.

tabs

I just used the stickers that came with the dividers, so I could easily see what went where. The Planning section is my general calendar, the Work one holds notes I need to remember for working with the different publications (quick style guides and the like) as well as a monthly view calendar. Notes and Expenses are pretty self explanatory, Projects is notes on things I need to be keeping an eye on or working on in my spare moments (story notes, research reminders, and the like). The Personal section is where I keep track of presents I want to buy for people, or things I want to tell others about. To Action is my to-do lists for while I’m out, so if I find myself in a spare moment (waiting for a bus, usually) I can keep track and actually be productive.

A week into living in my bag, my dividers were already looking a bit worse for wear, so I’ve laminated mine in hopes they’ll last the year. Below the ‘Planner’ section divider is a green bit of pattern- that’s one of the old planner dividers that I’m using to try and stop the papers getting so knocked around. It had writing on it, so I covered over it with tape to make it less ugly.

Colour coding and Post-It fetishes

colour coding and post its
I have a thing for colour. It’s why I have a ridiculous number of pens and notebooks in my office space. But as much as I love gel and felt tipped pens, because the planner refill pages I’m using are thin, I’m using coloured ball-point pens.

I need as much help as possible to pay attention to things, so colour works for me. I decide what colours represent what (red: freakin’ urgent, purple: writing, blue: business, pink: family and friends, green: Peta’s stuff, and orange: general) and I make sure to write each event or appointment in the right colour. Because I want to know roughly how busy I am over the longer-term, I also add a post-it flag to the top of the page. Yup, in that colour. I have a thing for Post-It notes. It’s a little sad, really.

I also use Post-It notes to keep track of events that have a habit of changing times and days. Marina and I meet up as often as possible to talk about our businesses and try to figure out what it is we’re actually doing. But we’re both victims of randomly intense schedules, so more often than not the day gets changed at least once. My perfectionist tendencies mean I wouldn’t cope with crossing things out so often- it’s too messy. So a note I can move around stops me pouting over messy bits of page.

Keeping track of reviews owing

review notes
I used to scrapbook, and I still art journal. It means I have an epic stash of pretty stuff lying about, taking up space. I’ve started adding useful bits and pieces, so I can keep track of what reviews I have to get done.

I use little journal cards to keep track of reviews. You can find knock-offs at cheap stores pretty easily, or go to craft stores and nab some of the various brands there. I have a piece of old planner paper to use as a template, and punch out holes so I can add them in and move them around easily.

Each month has two of those cards. There’s the stuff due that month, of course, but there’s also stuff that I want to try and read ahead if I have time.

Keeping track of multi-day events

taping off events
Sometimes, I’m a lucky little penmonkey and get to review multi-day events like Cons (yay for me!), and it’s good to be able to see at a glance what’s happening when.

I will admit, I go the washi tape. It draws my attention really quickly, and generally it can fit in the margins of the pages I’m using without too much trouble.

Oddly, this has nothing to do with my colour coding for smaller events. I just go with whatever I like in that particular moment, as long as it’s bold enough to show up. If it blends into the page, I won’t use it for this.

Tickets

tickets

I am terrible with keeping track of tickets. I always have great intentions, but sooner or later I’ll walk out the door and leave them sitting on the table. So with the printable sort at least, it’s easier to just cut them down to get rid of the unnecessary guff that fills the page, punch some holes in, and add them into the calendar.

Business Cards

biz card holder

I actually have two seperate cards: my fic writing card, and my freelancing card. Generally, both come with me when I leave the house. In the last planner convo, I talked about cannibalising old planner stuff to work in your new planner, and this card holder was from the tiny planner I tried earlier this year. Some washi tape over the original holes, a moment with a hole punch, and it fits into the new planner easily.

Daily jobs

We all have those daily to-do lists that feel terrifying. I use a post-it note that sits beside my laptop when I’m working from home. Again, colour coded: black ink for the stuff that isn’t urgent, and whatever colour takes my fancy to show off the really important stuff.

This also has an advantage: there’s only so much you can really write on one, so you have to be realistic about what you’re going to achieve. If I write out my list on a piece of paper (or worse, in a notebook) it’ll go on for pages. This way, I’m more honest about what I need to take care of.

Blogging

blog prep
Because I’m prone to bouts of busy, I’m trying to be better with blogging by actually setting up some of my posts in advance. That’s where the ‘work’ section of the planner comes in- it’s got the specific info I need when working for different publications, but it’s also got a monthly view calendar where I can just add stickers to remind myself of whether there’s a post prepped or not. Whenever I schedule a post, I add a sticker, and a Post-It in my general calendar section if I need to add links or images.

What I’ve learned

Time planners, where they have the hour by hour lines to keep track of appointments? They’re useless to me. I just need space to write notes.

I really don’t love it when the weekend sections are half the size of the weekday ones, but that’s pretty standard, unfortunately. I don’t get it though, because if you work, you’ve got to cram heaps into the weekend, right?

One planner is my limit. The more places I need to go for information or reminders, the less likely I am to actually do it.

Size matters. Too small, and I don’t have enough room to write everything into it. Too big and it becomes too heavy to take with me.

If it lives in your bag, it’s going to get knocked around. Leather won’t generally last as long because it’s more fragile than the plastic covers. Also? Those cute dividers are going to get really, really knocked around. Consider laminating them if you’re going to get frustrated with them tearing, or covering them with clear contact. Or, just buy an extra set or two.

Punch some holes in a piece of cardboard (or if you’re changing dividers, use one of your old ones) and add it to the back of your planner to keep your papers straighter. It gets knocked around in place of the back papers, so they last longer.

 

The Obligatory Organisation Conversation

It’s that time of year, word nerds. Suddenly, we’re all vowing to find a way to get our lives organised, and our schedules managed. We’ll be better in 2016. Sure we will. How can we not be, when there are eleventy-billion planners, diaries, organisational systems and gurus out there right this second, explaining how to take the wreck of our time, and make it something beautiful?

I have a confession to make: I really like planners. I love those ridiculous bastards. I’m still learning to effectively use them, but still, the love is there. But as Queen of ‘Been There, Done That’, let me assure you that it’s possible to spend far too much time and money trying to make it work for you, especially when so many of those systems are only a teensy bit different from the rest.

Every year, friends jump onto the planner bandwagon, spend a fortune on systems that *look* pretty, and then spend the rest of the year bitching and frantically searching for something that works for them. No moral high ground here- see my Queen status. So if you’re about to jump onto the organisational grenade, here are some things that’ll save you time, stress, and vodka.

Paper Vs Apps: the battle for souls
I tried planners on phone and iPad, and they didn’t do what I wanted. They were ugly, the colours sucked, and I stopped using them after a few days. A lot of the app planners have trial or lite versions to explore, so check them out before forking out for the full deal.

Great as apps can be, I’m talking paper here because that’s what I use, and that makes me useless in showcasing the wonders of tech. But overall, if you work better with tech, use it. Whatever works for you is perfect. Writers don’t get, nor do they deserve, cred for using paper.

What are you doing with this thing? No, really.
It’s a weird question, because clearly, you’re planning. Duh. But what are you planning? Is it work, life, a random blend of everything and everything? Before you skip merrily through your local office supply store (or, yknow, go online shopping like it’s an Olympic sport) figure out what you need to keep track of. 

Figure out what you need, and what you don’t.
Take some time, and figure out what you need, what you want, and what you can tolerate. Think about it: if you’re the sort of note taker who writes big, and writes a lot, then space is an issue. If you hate the colour yellow (no? Just me?) and there’s an entire month designed in yellow, think about whether you’ll be gritting your teeth through that month, and whether it’s worth it. 

What I need is space. Lots of it. I need my weekends to not be smooshed together into a tiny, pathetic little box. I need to colour code things so I can see at a glance what sort of things I’m doing. I need streamlined organisation, rather than rifling through multiple sections trying to keep track of everything.

What I want is pretty colours, fun designs, and cuteness overloads so that when I’m having a bad day, it’s like a random dose of cheerfulness. 

What I can tolerate is basic, functional, black and white pages if it means meeting my needs (though I’ll add colour to it, anyway).

Figure out what makes it feel less like a chore
If you’re anything like me, this is vital. If it feels like a chore every time you crack open your planning system, generally, you’ll stop bothering to use it. If using colour makes you forget you’re doing something work-like, then do it. If adding stickers is your jam, have at. But figure out what’ll keep you opening up that planner, and do it. 

MacGyver that SOB. Hard.
After a while, you realise that a lot of different planners have slightly different ring binding placements, ‘forcing’ you into buying only their brand. If you own washi tape, or any kind of decorative tape for that matter, then you can cannibalise other planner paper to include in your new one. You can get hand held punches pretty cheaply, and you can use a spare bit of the note paper as a template. Cover over the original holes with tape, punch out the new ones, and though it’s a thicker page than it was, you can still use it in your new planner. 

If something doesn’t work, change it. Add elements if you need to, and rip out what you don’t use. Seriously, just because it came with the set doesn’t mean it’s useful to you, and you’re not obliged to keep it in there ‘just in case’.

Pretty is great. Practical is better
If you want to add colour, the usual suspects are pens, stickers, post-it notes, and decorative tapes. If you’re working with a smaller planner, stickers and tape will eat into your space, hard.

As for those beautiful 3D additions you see on Pinterest? Bah humbug. Do you know how hard it is to use the paper when you’ve added a 3D skull or some bling to show what a unique little snowflake you are? Besides, depending on how thin the paper is, glues can mess with your ability to write on the underside of that page, anyway.

Most of those beautifully decorated planners never actually leave a desk, by the way. You know why? Because all that added bling and bulky yet beautiful decoration just adds weight, and damages the planner and pages after a while.

 

Size Matters
Paper is heavier than your phone. Duh. But seriously, consider that carefully. Those bigger planners are beautiful. You can fit more information in them, you can decorate them more easily if you want to.

And they weigh about as much as a baby elephant after a day hanging off your shoulder in a bag. They also make choosing a bag harder, and the weight of the bag ends up damaging your clothes after a while if you’ve regularly got the bag on your shoulders for hours at a time (like, oh, say when you’re walking around a Con for three days as a reviewer). This is important to remember, because clothes and bags are expensive, but so are chiropractors.

I thought I could bypass this by having two planners: the big one, with all the info I’d need, and a small one to be thrown into my handbag to be with me wherever I go. I thought I was so smart. WRONG.

The problem with that system is that I needed to remember to move info between the two. I needed to set aside time for it. For some people, it’s not an issue, but I remembered to do it maybe twice in six months.

It did not go well.

It goes back to figuring out what works for you: adding extra work doesn’t work for me because I’ll forget to do it.

The half-assed approach to figuring out what works
If you’ve wandered off and bought yourself a planner, chances are it came with inserts already. Use them for a few weeks- if they start on Jan 1, 2016, then see if you can find some free, similar looking ones online for this year and print the last weeks of December out and use them. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what works for you, and what turns you into a rage monster. That way, if that system fails, you go out to buy something better knowing what works for you.