Category Archives: Time Management for Writers

Join Wordsmith’s Live Writing Sprints on Twitter: #wssprint

cElissaField What we love about writing: constantly changing corner office view.

cElissaField What we love about writing: constantly changing corner office view.

Do you use word counts, hourly goals or other motivators to reach your writing goals? April is a great month for joining in any of a variety of writing challenges. Wordsmith Studio brings them all together with weekly writing sprints, every Friday in April.

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Join Hourly Writing Sprints Every Friday in April

Along with a fabulous group of writers, Elissa Field is a Founding Member at Wordsmith StudioYou may know I am a founding member of Wordsmith Studio, an awesome group of writers and artists who share craft resources and support each other throughout the year. We celebrate each other’s writing, keep each other going, and laugh a lot. This month, we are celebrating our 4th anniversary.

My part of our month-long celebration has been planning and serving as a moderator for all day writing sprints, live on Twitter every Friday in April. Look for camaraderie, motivation and some seriously smoking keyboards with hourly writing sprints, each Friday from 11am-11pm EST.

How #wssprint Works

The live sprints take place on Twitter. Follow #wssprint , or find via @WordsmithStudio  or @elissafield. (If you’re a Wordsmith member, we repeat some tweets in Facebook, as well.)

Beginning at 11 am EST, sprints start with a kick-off tweet on the hour. Write or edit for 45 minutes, then share your success — word count, page count, plotting solution, a favorite line, whatever — using #wssprint at :45. We take a break for 15 minutes (time to chat, share, ask questions, invite a friend, cheer each other on), then start again at :00, up until 11 pm EST.

Optional Prompts

Every hour, there is an optional writing prompt.

The prompts are great — more than 13 a day. I am a huge fan of novel prompts shared by Donald Maass in 21st Century Fiction (highly recommended for building depth, power and tension, when building or revising a novel), so we share some from him. Here is a favorite – you can see why I think he’s awesome.

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Sarah Turnbull (@thesaturnbull) and I wrote the prompts that aren’t credited to Maass, based on writing advice that has impacted our work. There are also photo prompts and ones coordinated with challenges our members are working on (see below).

But there are no rules. No prompts required. Lots of our writers are editing, rather than writing. Use the time however gets you going. Most say it’s just nice to feel like someone else is writing or editing with you.

Do take time to say hello, while you’re there.

What Goals Are Writers Working On?

Some of our participants are using the sprints for organized writing challenges, such as Camp NaNoWriMo, Poem a Day Challenge, A to Z Blog Challenge, or the monthly 500-word-a-day challenge (#AprWritingChallenge this month).

But most — including our Wordsmith Studio Goals Group or visitors from Writer Unboxed and Binder subgroups — are using sprints to keep going with existing goals.

I am using sprints to keep moving from draft 9 to draft 10 of my novel, Never Said. The first week, I finished transcribing handwritten scenes, incorporating new work and changes into the draft. Some writing sprints are chance to anchor scenes with more developed setting, now that I’ve fully developed character and plot. Sometimes I’m working on nonfiction, writing for education or editing for clients.

We’re all jumping in to inspire each other.

Oh, No. I Missed It!

Not all of our participants write along with us “live” — jump in to use the sprints whenever it works for you. You can scan #wssprint to find the prompts and share your success any time. Or, visit previous #wssprint days via Storify. And, considering the success this month and when we ran Fridays Are for (Spooky) Writing last October, be sure to follow @WordsmithStudio for sprints we run in the future.

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How About You?

What challenges are you working on in your writing this week, or what strategies help you reach your goals? We’d love to hear from you — share your thoughts or links in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or follow via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook.

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Wordsmith Studio Blog Hop: Writing Challenges, Successes & Strategies – Part 1

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

I’m joining in Wordsmith Studio’s 3rd Anniversary Blog Hop, today — responding to a great Q & A about my (recent) writing challenges or successes, and the tools, strategies or resources that help me succeed.10634351_10100112304388454_1141723537_n

Being a little funny, there, calling it a “great” prompt, as I was actually the one to write it. This is the third week I’ve hosted the WSS blog hop for writers, for our anniversary month.

I encourage you to go over and check out the hop. You don’t have to be a member of the writing group to join in. Do jump around and read the various posts. Particularly this week — it would be great if you shared a post with your own writing challenges and your tools or strategies for success. I’ll post links to the hop down below.

But not yet. First, here’s the interview.

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Q & A: My Writing Challenges (or Successes) and the Tools, Strategies or Resources That Help Me Succeed – Part 1

1) What are you currently working on?

My work is split between my business (freelance nonfiction, writing & editing), my Masters (writing and research related to curriculum & learning) and fiction. I occasionally write short stories (have a had a few published, a couple awards — small fry), but spend most of my time on novels. I work toward literary fiction, or what is referred to as crossover or book club fiction — literary fiction with commercial appeal.

I am working on a novel called Never Said (it was nicknamed Wake elsewhere on the blog). It trines between the U.S., Ireland and the Middle East, with one couple’s love affair unraveling a tension of what it is to live “without war” in an era when war touches everything.

As tools go: I use Outlook to block out time for business, masters and fiction, and to keep to do lists with weekly steps that help keep me moving forward in all 3 goals. I share goals with friends and with a life coach, to organize my goals and keep me accountable.

2) In recent past, what was your greatest joy or greatest challenge?

I have been impatient to complete this novel — but it was challenging, as it was the first one I attempted where the idea wasn’t that clear when I started writing. I knew the main characters and understood an essential tension, but had to go deep into research to understand the international context, and then deeper into character to develop the motivation and parallel stories that drive each.

Badge for my personal 2015 challenge with this novel.

Badge for my personal 2015 challenge with this novel.

It’s easy to get impatient when you feel like you should be able to have finished by now (twice, I thought I was revising a final draft), but as I work on this 8th draft, it is obvious that I had to work this long to understand the story that I had only sensed in the earlier versions. A fast version would have “worked,” but wasn’t compelling. Being willing to pull up and start over let me find the real story. And, of course, hard work teaches valuable lessons.

The greatest joy is that I love the newer material.

As resources go: 2 books on writing offered some good tools for targeting and addressing weak areas in my narrative or characters: Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions, and Donald Maass’s Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling

3) What challenge are you working through now?

Time is always an issue — especially right now, as I restarted my business and am busy with my kids — so any time delays are aggravating. I had a tree fall across my windshield 2 weeks ago, so groaned over the time spent getting it fixed. Same goes for lags in technology, or time spent marketing for work.

It’s not just about having time to write every day, but wanting those writing hours to be end-zone-level productive.

Transitioning between drafts means that I am pulling successful scenes from several documents in Word to build the new draft. Last summer, on the last draft, I did this simultaneously in Word and Scrivener; Scrivener has won me over, so I may be assembling this draft just in Scrivener. Although it sometimes slows me down to have to set up all the preferences, I like the ability to see each scene as a discreet piece in Scriv. Much of my writing in recent months involved re-envisioning existing scenes — the ‘notecard’ view helps me locate, compare or replace previous versions, and to readily sort scenes that will be re-ordered in the final draft. The challenge, though, when working from multiple drafts is staying organized.

As tools go: I believe in Scrivener enough that I’ve include a link to their site in my sidebar. If you don’t know much about the software, click the picture here to check it out (if it takes you to a “buy” page, click the banner for the homepage for more about…). They are generous in offering a 30 nonconsecutive-day free trial, which allows you a lot of time to play with it before having to pay.

Buy Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence)

4) For work you are just planning or starting, what challenges or growth are you expecting or hoping to encounter?

I’ve drafted novels and met with agents face-to-face before, but this will be my first foray into blind querying. I’ve practiced pitching and spitballing at conferences and workshops in the last year, and gotten an agent’s feedback on a query draft.

As for strategies: It’s worth noting that attempting to draft a query or plan pitches and log lines during different face-to-face activities with peers and agents is part of what helped me know when I didn’t have a clear sense of the story. Writing pitches and queries ended up being a great strategy for understanding my narrative structure.

5) What have successes or challenges in your work (recently) taught you?

Well, the thing I just mentioned. Having come from a literary background where these things aren’t brooded on as much as word choice and such, I was surprised how important plot structure, narrative arc, suspense and other elements more typically suited to screenwriting have been, as tools in my revisions.

As resources go: the sign at the top of this post was from a workshop I participated in last January (Blue Flower Writers Workshop at Atlantic Center for the Arts), where Ben Percy was the clearest I’ve heard in talking about structure and suspense, even in literary writing.

6) What obstacles or challenges have you not been able to overcome, or still frustrate you? Is there a “magic wand” you would invent to solve this problem?

Yes, I want Hermione’s time turner — to be able to use the same hour to address multiple priorities. It’s not that I don’t have the time. Keeping time to write (fiction) every week is a nonnegotiable for me — I am stubborn in crafting the rest of my life around it, even while running a business or when I teach full time. But I still get frustrated to not be done yet.

As tools go: A magic wand that pulls the story straight out of my head would be great. As strategies go: here are other posts I’ve written on time management strategies for writers.

To Be Continued…

There are 2 more questions to the Q & A, asking how I would define a great writing week and what specific tools and strategies help me succeed. Those answers are long enough that I’m going to let them be a second post.

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How About You? Join in the Blog Hop!

What successes or challenges are you working through, and what tools, resources or strategies help you succeed?

I’d love to hear your answers in the comments.  Better yet, if you are reading this 4/29-5/4, join in the blog hop by using the linky tool below.  Visit the initial prompt, with all 8 questions and more explanation of “how to hop,” on Wordsmith Studio’s site: Writers’ Homecoming Blog Hop – Week 3.

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Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

If you like the idea of more blog hops, let me know, as I may host them in the future on this site.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or subscribe via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar if you don’t have a WordPress account. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook. I love to connect with readers and writers.

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Writing Process: How to Write on the Beach

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

One of the best parts of being a writer is supposed to be our ability to do our job from anywhere.

It’s true: I remember getting an assignment while on vacation with my family at a resort in Mexico. I wrote and submitted the piece while lounging in the most gorgeous cabana beneath bougainvillea overlooking the infinity pool with a swim-up bar.

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

Likewise, as a mom with sons home from school for the summer, I don’t want to spend all of my novel revision hours holed up beneath my laptop while the boys are stuck watching TV complaining about just what a drag their mom is.

(What unfair irony: I’m researching motorcycle racing in Northern Ireland or writing about a furtive flight into Havana or a photojournalist lost on assignment in Syria… while my boys see just me staring at a laptop. You get my quandary.)

So it is that I spent much of June writing with my boys at the beach.

Today’s post is a pictorial “how-to”, as it turns out there are some tricks to being successful at writing on the beach.

Enjoy your day, wherever you write!

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The Basics

tree topsThe best advice for getting any writing done on the beach is similar to advice I’ve shared in Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation.

It’s a twist on staying focused to write at home: you’re still removing obstacles and distractions, setting goals, and working in a format that keeps you productive.

1) Bring your work in a format that is conducive to actually getting something done.

Just like writing on the subway or anywhere else on the go, you have to think through your current writing goal and the format that makes that goal most portable.

Beach writing is great for generating new work — whether longhand in a journal or on a tablet or laptop. The clarifying environment loosens up many writers’ creativity, as might a run on the beach.

Since my goal this summer is novel revision, I use beach time for read-through revisions. For this, I bring a full, printed, bound copy of the manuscript.  Of course I have a pen for writing edits, but have found a highlighter most useful — I highlight just the words that are working and focus on those when typing revisions. I don’t bring my whole editing kit of colored pens, post-it notes, etc., though. I keep it simple.

My novel, Never Said, was mistaken to think this would be a vacation. c Elissa Field

My novel, Never Said, was mistaken to think this would be a vacation. c Elissa Field

But, whoa — that binder is bulky and messing with my tan lines.

If I weren’t working on a full read-through, I might take a short printed section (or a short story). Or, I’ll address working on a laptop, below.

2) It’s not Survivorman…Take only what you need

You can tell the locals on our beach because they carry the least gear. I know: you’re heading to this exotic workspace and all the “seasonal” aisles at the store suggest you need floaties and an umbrella and special blankets and a cooler and…

Get past the marketing frenzy. It’s the same drill as if you were getting writing done at home: you have to limit obstacles and distractions. The more you schlep to the beach, the longer it takes to just get going.

Option 1:  The calmest form of beach writing is if you’re staying at a resort, in which case: casually walk to the pool or neatly raked private beach with your writing materials. Use the towel they give you, the chair adjusted for you, and drink they bring you. Write your work, then leave everything there; they will clean up after you. Return to your room for a massage and nap, dine in the nice restaurant. Repeat. One added obstacle: time needed to brag and Instagram pictures of the waiter bringing you snacks

Option 2:  Sometimes you’re on vacation or staking space at the beach for an entire day. Fine, then recruit your little minions (aka family) to carry a cooler with drinks, lunch, an umbrella and all you need to be comfortable all day.

office equip bonus shells 2Option 3:  For every other beach trip: take just the basics to be comfortable for 2 hours. Even your beer won’t get hot without a cooler for two hours. Stop complaining, just sip faster.  You need: you, sunscreen already applied, a chair (yes, it keeps you off the sand), a towel, your work, a drink. If you can’t carry it all in one trip, you’re carrying too much.

Okay, fine… Here are a tropical writer’s tricks to take a drink that does not require a cooler. (Some of these assume it’s ok to have adult drinks at your beach. I will not come to bail you out.)

  • That’s what frozen drinks were invented for. Margarita, daiquiri. Mix, then refreeze so they melt more slowly. (Don’t get loopy while writing: frozen margarita mix by itself makes a great beach drink.)
  • Freeze your nonalcoholic beverages (water, lemonade, juices) but make sure to do it in BPA-free bottles.
  • Make a great beach “sangria”: Near fill a water bottle with frozen berries or frozen sliced peaches, mango or papaya. Top with half juice (or even lemonade) and half chardonnay.
  • My favorite beach drink is a 50-50 shandy of Peroni and Pellegrino sparkling limonata. Semi-freeze the limonata to keep it cold, or float with frozen berries or a chill-cube.
  • Freeze grapes to use as ice cubes in nearly any drink. They don’t dilute the drink as they melt. Or, freeze cubes of margarita mix, lemonade, juice or whatever you will be drinking, and use those to cool your drink.

Dealing with glare.

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No matter what the ads say, it is harder to read a laptop screen in bright sunlight. But it is manageable. The glare in this selfie of me was cured with a simple tilt of the monitor.

  • Turn up the brightness on your monitor. Most laptops are set to dim brightness when unplugged in order to conserve battery power, so you need to turn this up manually (on my Dell, that’s a combination of Fn+F5). This does reduce your battery life, so close unneeded apps. Save battery power for the manuscript by reading email or Twitter on your phone.
  • Wear sunglasses. Well, duh. Polarizing colors will serve you best. A hat won’t do it.
  • Target what you work on. Glare will be hardest on fine-tune editing work, like commas and spacing.  The least effect will be on typing in new material. Do your fine-tuning at home and use beach time for new writing or read-through’s.
  • Edit in print. Easiest adaptation is to go old school and use beach time for handwritten edits on a printed draft. My best beach work has included rewriting a scene in longhand or highlighting the best text to keep in a novel in process.

Dealing with sand

Despite best efforts, I was typing with sandy hands.

Despite best efforts, I was typing with sandy hands.

Heh. Good luck with that. I distinctly remember the day, my first year in Florida, when I gave up ever having no sand in the carpet in my car. It’s just a reality of the beach.

Some tips for managing sand intrusion into your work:

  • Nothing precious. My print copy of my novel has a bit of permanent sand in its binder. Another draft has a wet splash from a  morning by the pool. They’re working drafts. Honestly: a little water or sand is nothing compared to the red ink, post-it notes and highlighter scarring their pages. I can live with that. Just another badge of courage.
  • Swim last. I don’t swim until after I’m done working, which helps with sand management as my towel and I are dry, attracting less sand.
  • Oops. Flipped my laptop and binder into the sand. No damage though - it dusted off.

    Oops. Flipped my laptop and binder into the sand. No damage though – it dusted off.

    Have a safe seat for your laptop. I carry a separate bag where my laptop stays unless I’m working on it, and an extra towel to rest it on, in a safe place out of direct sun. I don’t leave it unattended while out swimming for hours; I don’t bring a laptop on days I’ll be distracted for long stretches with that kind of activity. (I also don’t leave it in the car as police say beach parking lots can be targeted by thieves who figure beachgoers left purses and wallets in the car.)

  • Only out when you need it. Don’t let sand or water be an obstacle (or you’ll get no work done), but have alternatives so you only need the laptop out for certain work. I leave the laptop in a covered bag while working on a print draft, and use my cell phone rather than the laptop for tasks like checking email, my website or Twitter.
  • Select your seating. While I used to sit picnic-style or lay out on a blanket or towel, a beach chair raises you off the sand. I use a lightweight, adjustable one that folds to carry backpack-style. My boys keep their splashing and gear away from my work area and we don’t settle in right next to someone’s digging dog.
  • Avoid wind. It doesn’t just blow the sand – it makes you squint and wrestle with your work. Enough said.
  • Go resort-style. No one said the beach has to be off-roading. Even if you are not staying at a hotel, resorts often let you rent a cabana or lounge chair for the day, which certainly civilizes the experience. Some of my local friends have paid for a beach/pool membership at local resorts. Sitting poolside gets you off the sand altogether.

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How About You?

What strategies do you use to write in unusual locations? I wrote about the beach, but I’ve heard friends with awesome solutions to writing successfully in traffic, in the grocery store, or… How about you?

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Finishing the Novel: Daily Task of “Getting it Done”

Celebrating the first days of summer writing at a French café. c. Elissa Field

Celebrating the first days of summer writing at a French café. c. Elissa Field

 

Ah, blissful! After a demanding spring of teaching, summer has arrived — and with it, long days of novel revision. As often as I post about Novel Revision Strategies, one of the biggest strategies is how to manage time to get the most out of time to write.

Today, this had me reflecting on the strategies that help writers work long days on novel writing or revision to successfully reach writing milestones but not burn out or kill energy for the work.

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1)  Purge all those distractions.

If I were only going to write for 30 minutes before going to a day job, this step would be considered a distraction. But, on days when you plan to write or revise all day, there’s only so far you can ignore other tasks (trust me, I’ve pushed it). Here’s a quick cycle I let myself run through to remove distractions before writing:

  • Get refreshed. For me, it’s coffee. For some writers this might be push-ups, a quick run or walking the dog.
  • Keep it clean. Allow a quick 5-15 minutes to make a pass at household tasks. Picking up after the boys, dishes, laundry — whatever handful of things keeps the house going. Generally, this fits in while coffee is brewing. Sometimes I use “count to 10” for this: pick a random number like 10, 20 or 25 — and quickly knock out that many of something. As a parent, this step usually involves cleaning; another writer might need this time to schedule an oil change or other kind of maintenance. Or be so lucky as to be able to skip this one altogether. Jealous.
  • Follow up for 10. We all hear warnings to stay away from email, social media and other distractions. But look, we take time to build important connections – so while I agree it’s important to write first, I give myself 10 minutes to tend the fires I stoked the day before. I don’t tend client projects here; those I schedule other times in the day.
  • Know your plan. Whether you have a written to-do list or a general idea in your head, have a sense of your writing goals for the day, with all materials on hand.

Everyone good? Kids busy with an activity? Somebody fed the cat? Nothing is on fire? Then hunker down.

2)  Write. One hour (or two). Uninterrupted.

For the work I’m doing today, 1 hour works. You might rather 2 hours. Whatever your number, it’s pure writing time.

Somewhere in the fidgeting above, I will already have in my head what the morning’s work should be. This week, the goal is to get as far through a complete read through (and revision) as possible. I’m working from a printed draft, so I will have shot that print job to the printer in 100-page chunks while checking email or some other menial task prior to writing. Yeah: no “I couldn’t write because I spent my hour fixing a printer jam or replacing print cartridges.”

No chat. No email. No phone or text or social media. No pausing for drinks or bathroom. If you’re a clock-watcher, use the timer on your cell phone to remove that distraction. Fall purely into writing for one straight hour.

Ding.

3)  Time for a break.

When I’m draft-writing, I write for hours on end, as long as the ideas are flowing. For revision: blocks of time. In the breaks in between, I might be revisiting some of those same tasks from morning’s distraction purge. Check the kids. Switch the laundry. Walk the dog. Get a snack. Another coffee. A phone call. Short tasks from other areas of my to-do list.

Again, I’m not a proponent of staying away from social media, so I would check Twitter, Facebook or my blog. I might share an accomplishment from the morning — connecting with other writers working on their goals at the same time is a great way to keep yourself going.

But I aim for a break to be 30 minutes, not longer. Sometimes it’s just a stretch, refill coffee and…

4)  Back to it.

Lots of successful writers will say their complete writing goal for a day might be 2 hours’ work. For me, during summers away from teaching, my aim is 4 hours on a short day, but as long as 8-10 hours for a full day of writing or revision. I get there by repeating these 2 hour blocks of work.

Do I have to stick with the clock? Not precisely.

Using time blocks helps structure the day and keep you honest – both in your discipline and the need to stop for breaks. But the day’s goals may dictate more organic work-blocks: retyping chapters one and two might fit neatly into one hour, or might prompt a sidetrack into research over the actual date the TSA was started. Maybe that block will be 1.5 hours, and maybe another block will be just 30 minutes, since it involves an intensive re-evaluation of my character’s inner motivation that requires a breather for reflection afterward.

I don’t stop to a factory bell if I am in the middle of something. Likewise, sometimes a task goes more quickly — or is more draining, so you need a break sooner than expected.

Having minimum or maximum time blocks can help you stay on track. If I planned to write an hour, I’ll push myself to keep going if it’s been less than 45 minutes. If I planned an hour but keep going off on tangents, I might control this by stopping if it goes past 2 hours.

Are you working at home with family? Honoring time blocks also helps to manage that temptation to get lost in writing and forget a promise you made to take kids to the pool or go out to dinner with your partner.

5)  Break up the work

To achieve 8 and even 10 hour days, I’ll keep repeating breaks and time blocks to stay refreshed but productive throughout the day.

Time blocks also help to create natural shifts in the work.

For me, this might mean 4 hours on the novel, then 2 writing for my blog or clients, or to work on submissions. Or I might break it into hours for revision, versus hours for research or drafting new material. Shifts in work help keep you from burning out.  I use a color-coded Outlook calendar to keep a visual of the time needed and available for each, throughout the week.

Benefit of learning to write on the go: my "office" view for the afternoon.

Benefit of learning to write on the go: my “office” view for the afternoon.

You can also shift location. This morning I have certain work (like this post) that has to be done on household wifi. But I’ve packaged afternoon revisions so I can take them with me to the beach, which allows me to honor time with my boys. Flexibility in where you work is a great strategy for buying time to write.

6)  Celebrate an accomplishment.

Keep yourself going by celebrating a milestone. Intrinsic rewards can be something as simple as flipping through all the editing marks you’ve made on a printed manuscript or reviewing your word count for the day. One friend kept tally of her word count on her mousepad at the end of every day.

Make it social by sharing this. Lots of us keep each other going by posting our day’s milestones to Twitter or a goals group with writing friends online. Some share their word counts on NaNoWriMo software during challenges throughout the year. Tell your partner or your kids. Build in a fun reward, like a festive drink or night out with friends.

Or… yes, there are days when the “celebrate” step is replaced with “chastise.” Do reassess goals for the following day if a milestone wasn’t reached or new issues came up.

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What About You?

What time strategies do you use to reach your writing goals? Am I alone in trying to work 8-hour writing/editing days (I doubt that)? How do you keep yourself both refreshed and moving toward your goals?  Or, post a question if you think readers here could help you solve your writing-schedule challenges.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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(c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

(c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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Motivation to Write: Setting New Goals to Move Beyond a Success

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.

I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on — but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column.  The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake.  I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.

There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.

Last Year’s January Challenge

One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid.  On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake.  I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.

I reached goals.  Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.

What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress.  (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)

One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer.  Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live.  But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time.  I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.

It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic.  I made money off my site.  I expanded my writing about education.  I made progress with the family goals.  And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.

The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers

I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.”  For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing.  The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel.  Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.

The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families.  I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.

Success as Hurdle to Motivation

I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it.  Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer.  Things were going well.  There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?

Let Hunger be Your Fuel

I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.

“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.

She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context.  I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it.  I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.

And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend.  To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.

During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach.  If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class.  I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level.  And yes, I still work on the novel when I can.  What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year.  It’s awesome.

But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow.  I needed to re-find that hunger.

Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow

The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.

Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success.  But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.

Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward.  Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for  a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.

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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?

Does any of this ring true with you?  Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below.  If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.

I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.

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grasp c Elissa Field

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Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation

tree tops.

We talk a lot about prioritizing writing against other claims on our time. Travel has its own challenges for a writer working to maintain daily writing or editing goals.

On one hand, you’re awash in stimulation while away from the usual daily pressures. If it’s a vacation, time is often not an issue.  I say that while luxuriating with the dogs on the quilt covered sofa of my mother’s sunroom, looking out to her gardens. After weeks of 8-hour (or more) writing days, it’s shocking to have this much time on my hands.

On the other hand, travel presents its own set of distractions and obstacles. At home, we don’t mind pushing ourselves to be industrious. But how can you keep productive while surrendering yourself to time off with family or seeing fabulous sites?

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6 Strategies to Keep Writing While on Vacation

1. What Did You Say? 

At my family’s Michigan cottage growing up, we went out to swim at sunrise and came back inside when lightning bugs lit the trees.  As with many vacations, time was not an issue. But conversation is.  I can’t lose myself in novel revisions while in conversation with my mom about a turn in her business, or chatting with the sister-in-law I haven’t seen in 3 years. I might carry my work with me, but it loses out to listening to my niece explain the story behind her doll. For writers traveling with family, my suggestion is to know one activity during every day when no one will be talking, and be sure to have your work with you then. This may be a train ride, lying by the pool or while others are reading or showering.

2.  On the Move.

At home, I was working with a printed copy of my novel in a binder, a kit of colored markers and pens and post it notes, my coffee and a laptop… which covered the better part of my couch and adjoining table. I won’t be successful on vacation if I need to spread out like that. On the other hand, I traded documents by email the other day while 30′ off the ground, harnessed to a tree-side platform between legs of a zipline obstacle course, using the phone in my back pocket (pretty much at the point that picture was taken of my sons, above). I can take either my laptop or binder and write on the train into the city, or sitting on the bent limb of a tree fallen across the hidden tidal beach we hiked to yesterday.  The key to keep working while traveling is to have work in multiple, portable formats. Think ahead to where you will be and make sure you have some portable piece of your work with you to work on. Depending on how much I want to carry, I can take just my binder or laptop, or a smaller printed section with a pen, or just a notebook, and I always have my phone. Don’t overlook photography, which is great for capturing a thought more quickly than writing.

3.  Look, No Hands!tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

You have the time, no one’s talking to you and your ideas are flowing… but one obstacle travel tends to throw at writers is that it keeps eyes and hands unavailable to write. Take the 22 hours I spent with my hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, driving up the east coast last week. Holding hands while leading a kid through New York traffic, climbing rocks, swimming in the pool, cooking dinner… all of these come to mind as activities one just can’t write through. In some cases, like during that drive, audio options help make the most of that time. Use Dragon Dictation app on a smart phone to dictate revisions or new material. The app transcribes your spoken words, then you tap to email it to yourself. Or, use the time for reading by downloading an audiobook or podcasts from literary magazines or NPR.  Just as often, when the interaction with family or ocean dip or simply marveling at the world justifies dropping all thoughts of writing, throw yourself into it whole-heartedly, without guilt or preoccupation with the work. Claim time later to jot your thoughts when the moment is over.

4. Hold That Thought

Travel can be great for writing, as new settings and experiences and overheard conversations can be unique inspiration to start something new. But, wow, that can be a nightmare if you’re working to stay focused in a story you are revising. Last thing I need right now is for my war-toughened main character’s voice to suddenly lapse toward describing gardens and tea and children playing with plastic boats just because that’s my vacation view. To avoid cross-contamination, be flexible about what you work on. Use a notebook to record those new inspirations for later. If you feel like vacation demeanor is shifting your voice, work outside your main document, so you can decide later if the new material or revisions are a fit. Or, make an effort to write only during staked time, so distractions from the vacation world are reduced (see 5 & 6).

5. Stake Your Claim

There are vacations where you really drop everything to surrender yourself to the holiday. Foreign travel can be like that. This last week, I was visiting with my brother and his family after a long time apart. When that’s the case, don’t regret not writing or waste energy struggling to fit it in that would have been better spent experiencing your travel.  But, otherwise, when you have a daily writing goal, let your traveling companions know this and stake the claim for that time. Ask others what the schedule is each day and agree on the time you will spend writing.  If you don’t want to draw attention to the writing, disguise it as a daily trip to the coffee shop.  But you may be surprised to find someone else relieved for quiet time to read or check email. Buddy up with that person to avoid feeling antisocial. I am writing this morning while my mom catches up on business calls and email, and my sons play a game. Claim time and space with minimal distractions, but where you won’t feel like you’re missing out (see 1 or 6).

6. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down

When all else fails, unless it’s your honeymoon, use that last hour of the day when everyone is falling asleep. My first days on this trip, I fell asleep with my laptop on my knees.  It’s prime time: no guilt, no distractions, less influence from the stimulation of the new environment. If this is your plan, watch out for those days when rock climbing or wine tasting might leave you shot by bedtime. If you’re an early riser or it’s not the kind of trip where you have to be out the door early, try writing while everyone else wakes.

That said, I’m due to take my work with me to sit by the pool while my boys swim. One last warning for travelers, to be read in a spectral voice (a la Edgar Allen Poe reciting the Raven): whenever you are traveling with your work, remember to protect against loss by leaving backups behind.

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What About You?

Are you trying to keep up with writing goals while traveling or entertaining company this summer?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

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Or, here is the current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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January Challenge Week 4: And Then Plans Changed…

Time for January in July: revisiting the January Challenge to see how we are all doing with goals set at the beginning of the year. Review this post for its list of strategies for evaluating how you’re doing and what to do next.

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Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

Day One - Begin

The bottom line with all writing advice is you have to get started. Write first thing in the morning, while coffee brews. Block out time to write on your calendar. Set word-count goals or write in 3o minute sprints. The bottom line on all of these is: get started.

While lots are taking time off to vacation this month, thousands of writers from all ranges in experience are committed to write every day in July or even the whole summer, to get this thing (whatever their writing project may be) done.

Whether you are a joiner, jumping in to share your daily accomplishments in a public forum, or are going it alone in classic writerly isolation, here are 12 online resources get you motivated to write every day.

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1.  Online Writing Forums & Challenges – motivation, camper-style

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Vertical-BannerThe most well-known forum at the moment is Camp NaNoWriMo, which began July 1. The July “camp” is an off-shoot of the Office of Letters and Light’s original project to “write a novel in 30 days” during National Novel Writing Month (November). NaNoWriMo gets writers going with site software for tracking daily word counts, counting down to reach a total wordcount goal. Traditionalists may balk at the thought, but the site attracts a full range of experienced and newbie writers who find the site’s ability to turn daily writing into a trackable accomplishment with peers cheering you on just plain fun. (Yes, NaNo has had lots of “real” books published.) NaNoWriMo is especially good motivator for a new project, but “rebels” (those who’ve already completed a novel draft, or are researching or…) abound, with rebel forums and guidelines for setting project-specific goals.

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonMore forums and daily challenges:

  • Teacher or Librarian? Teachers Write is a vibrant “writing camp” hosted by a slew of adult and young-adult authors, currently running (through summer) with daily prompts, Q & A with authors, community and feedback.
  • Is your writing goal to “build platform” (audience) for your writing? Robert Lee Brewer’s Platform Building Challenge from April 2012 is the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen for expanding competence in all social media formats. Click the link to go to day 1 – and check out Wordsmith Studio, an ongoing writers’ forum that arose from the challenge.
  • Blogger? If your goal is to post every day, join Liv, Laugh, Love’s July Bloggers’ Challenge which offers daily prompts and a Facebook forum to gain audience.
  • Poet? Try Our Lost Jungle’s February 2013 Chapbook Challenge for a month of inspiration to write daily poems and organize a chapbook.
  • Submitting for publication? Try Our Lost Jungle’s  May 2013 Submit-O-Rama with daily inspiration, goals and resources.

camp writingAm I participating in any of these forums? I used the 2012 Platform Challenge last year, I’m a Founding Member of Wordsmith Studios, I’ve participated in Teachers Write, and I’m a rebel at Camp Nano (find me here). For testimonial on how online interactions impacted the day’s writing, check out Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends at NaNoWriMo.

2.  Use Good Prompts

Cynical about prompts? Not all prompts provoke insightful writing or help you advance the conflict of your story.

Of all the prompts I’ve ever encountered, I think literary agent & author Donald Maass rules. He occasionally tweets them from as a numbered list, as shown below. Follow him (@DonMaass) or his hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday for more. Below these tweets are links for more from Maass, as well as a recommended resource from Ann Hood.

More Maass prompts:

Another of my favorite books to prompt novel inspiration is Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions . Read about it here: Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy.

3.  Time & Word Count Motivators

Lots of writers motivate themselves with daily milestones. Ann Hood has built a career by writing 2 hours every day. Others aim for a word count goal. Writers with a deadline set this by dividing the number of  needed words by the available writing days.  Others may aim for 1,000 or 2,000 words — adjusted to whatever their normal, productive word count would be.

  • Written? Kitten!  Just for fun, to feel a sense of accomplishment for, say, every 100 words you write, you have to click and check this out. Every time you type 100 words, you’re rewarded with a kitten. (I’d forgotten using it, once, until I was transferring text from an add-on doc to my WIP and found it ended with the sentence, “If I keep typing, any word now a kitten will appear.” Meow.)
  •   750 Words This site takes its inspiration from the practice of writing morning pages recommended in The Artist’s Way. The site keeps a bowling card style score for each day you write, with double points each time you hit 750 words (equivalent to 3 pages) per day. Unlike the Kitten, you have to provide your email address and log in.
  • Timed Writing. Finish reading this first. Then log off the internet when writing, to blog the temptation to surf during writing time. Some writers use more forceful options: check out Mashable’s 6 Apps That Block Online Distractions So You Can Get Work Done.
  • For more time-management strategies, go to the January Challenge, below.

4. Strategies for Getting Started – or Finished

In January, I hosted the January Challenge… Check out the strategies below for ways to manage competing priorities to accomplish your writing goals – from writing daily to applying to residencies or increasing submissions.

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What About You?

What writing goal are you working on this month? Are there resources or forums that help you stay motivated, or are they a distraction for you? (Despite this post, I find resources both “helpful” and “a distraction,” so balance between networking and hermitsville.)

Feel free to share goals, prompts or links to your own articles on similar themes in the comments.

And, best wishes with whatever your goals this month.

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January Challenge Week 4: And Then Plans Changed…

space suit c Elissa Field

Anyone who has followed the January Challenge since the beginning knows that it sets out to support all of us in kicking off 2013 goals by spending one week apiece to focus on:

During Week 2, I posted How the January Challenge Arose from Freelance Writing to address how each of these steps is needed to keep a writing career growing — whether as a full time professional, a novelist with a day job, a busy blogger or someone still dreaming of getting a first draft off the ground.

Writers have accepted a profession that seeks unstructured days to have the freedom to write or explore the world. But, truth told, “freedom to work” sometimes takes more discipline and structure than lives yoked into a traditional job. Writers take on responsibility to stoke their own forward momentum so that free hours don’t escape unused.

Beyond that, writing hours need roll-bar-strong discipline to fend off the interruptions that continually threaten to claim a writer’s attention.

Children. Day job. Editing project. New client. Platform building. Broken dryer. Teaching. Deadline. Travel. Blank page. New inspiration. Friends, family. All these quality things vying for attention. For many writers, these distractions increase with success as new demands arise for speaking engagements or teaching or promotional tours.

In posts like 15 Strategies for Finishing Work, I shared some tricks for setting concrete tasks that help create a clear plan for getting the writing done.

And Then Things Change

My own weeks 3 & 4 of the January Challenge became a prime example of why those “roll-bars” are needed.

For Week 2 (“start something”), I set about the steps necessary to begin production of a literary magazine for my students, as planned. Fate laughed, and in a single day my prior job of teaching 3 writing classes and leading the literary magazine was switched entirely to cover a position vacated by a colleague who leaves our school this week.

Which brings us to…

Week 4: (Re)Evaluate and (Re)Plan

It’s easy to take sudden changes in plans or priorities as the latest “derailing” of the writing we planned to get done. How many times does intended writing get back-burnered because of a genuinely justifiable interruption from work or life?

The key to keeping writing moving forward is expecting those interruptions. Change wasn’t a surprise. New demands on our time aren’t a surprise. We know — it’s not our first rodeo — something always comes up.

Whether ending a project and needing a new client, or running into a production snag, or having a new PR issue to address. Whether a writer setting aside your own revisions while teaching others to write, or an agent pitching novel drafts without time to work on your own, or a parent trying to finish a novel with a sick kid, late sports, holidays or packing for a family trip… There’s always something.

As I said in the post about freelancing, this is why I evolved the “finish, begin, improve, and evaluate/plan” cycle, so you can continually dovetail new work in without stopping work on your original goals.

So we take on Week 4 of the challenge: it’s time to (re)evaluate and (re)plan.

Applying Steps of the Challenge as You Evaluate & Plan 

Evaluating and planning really means creating a new to-do list for the coming months, applying many of the steps set out in prior posts.

  • Evaluate what you accomplished in the prior month (or day or week). Reward yourself with check-marks, log word counts in Scrivener, or hours on your calendar. Blog about it. Celebrate.
  • Evaluate where you stand on existing projects. Create a list of tasks for steps that need to be finished, targeting any obstacles that have kept you from moving forward.
  • Evaluate what is going well. What do you want to do to continue this success, or to replicate it on a different project?
  • Measure these successes against your ultimate goal. In celebrating your 10,000 words written last month, will this get you to a finished draft by March? Set new quotas or adjust the ultimate goal, as fits.
  • Sometimes intermediate successes cause new hurdles. New material I wrote on my novel draft last fall requires new revision steps to reach the final version. Since I don’t want to delay finishing, what will I do to add writing hours to fit these revisions in? (I cancelled an optional conference.)
  • Did success in one project prevent work on another? Evaluate if it’s time to reclaim hours for a project pushed to the back-burner.
  • What will you take off your list? Surprises, successes and changes in plans often leave old to-do items irrelevant. Remove things that no longer matter to you.
  • What will you finish this month (or day or week)? Maybe you have a deadline or mandatory project to finish (I need to hand off my prior classes to the new teacher). Otherwise, like in Week 1, pick one thing you’ll just get done.
  • What new goals arose? Add in new goals or things you want to start. For me, this includes starting my new classes. But also planning for a Reading Challenge on this site in March.
  • What needs improvement? I’ve improved linking around my blog, improved how quickly my sons can get out of the house in the morning, repaired my car, cleaned my office. I want to claim more efficient writing time with a computer upgrade: I’ll schedule a laptop upgrade within the month to make the most of working time during the school year. I’ll plan a website upgrade in June, as I’ll have more free hours for tweaking during the summer.
  • What will you delay? It’s not lame to adjust a timeframe if you are still honoring what is most important to you. Don’t quit the goal; just move it to a better time on the calendar. With revisions, this sometimes includes scheduling a break to allow some distance from a piece of work.
  • In a prior post, I mentioned how writers often balance the time-money-credit trifecta. Evaluating your current balance of those 3 things impacts how to prioritize goals in the coming months. This last month brought me increased income and increased street cred to write in one of my subject areas. That means I’ll evaluate and plan where I will steal time back to work on the novel and stories (or when I’ll write pieces to make use of the street cred). This is key in planning my to-do list. For example, the money allows me to pay for 3 tasks which actually free my time or increase my efficiency to work on the book — and I need to make sure that takes place.
  • What resources do you need? Don’t forget to list supplies or knowledge you need to acquire to achieve immediate goals, or have on hand as you reach later steps. Key in this: what experts or peers could you seek out to expand your potential? Don’t overlook delegating or reaching out to a friend.
  • Don’t forget to plan when you will re-evaluate again. Consider the chunks of time/priorities on your calendar, and see how they form natural times for when you will pause and set priorities. I will be evaluating things with my day-job daily over the next week, as it is the transition time for the new job. I’ll have a breather to evaluate during next week’s 3-day weekend, at which time I’ll plan for the weeks until spring break. I can claim some writing during break, and will also use that to spend time with my sons and plan through the end of year.

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Where Are You in Your January Challenge?

write start badgeHopefully your January Challenge didn’t involve as drastic a change as mine did — unless it was a fabulous success that makes your wish list irrelevent!

A few readers who responded said that they wanted to take on the challenge but weren’t sure if they were doing it in the right order or at the right time. Hopefully the post on freelancing or this post make it clear: there is no right order or time. Our mutual challenge is just to get our 2013 goals off and running by recognizing obstacles that keep us from getting started and breaking projects into steps we can tackle.

It would be great to hear from you in the comments (or share link to your post if you blog about it):

What challenges did you take on, whether to finish, start or improve?

What obstacles are you encountering? What strategies helped you move past them, or what encouragement could you use?

What successes have you had?

If you blog about your January Challenge, please include a link back to one of the January Challenge posts here, and then share a link to your post in the comments below. You are welcome to use the January Challenge badge if you want to be festive. There is no time limit — we are working on goals for the whole year, so you are welcome to participate well past the end of the month!

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grasp c Elissa FieldThe Complete January Challenge:

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January Challenge Week 2: Start Something

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Time to launch Part 2 of the January Challenge — starting one new project from your 2013 goals! 

Today’s kick-off addresses claiming time and selecting which project to start.

But first, for anyone who hasn’t read previous posts: the January Challenge arose because many of us have competing goals we want to tackle in 2013. To get the year started, I applied strategies from freelance writing (and teaching and parenting…) to stoke projects in various stages and keep progress moving forward.

write start badgeEach week of the challenge focuses on finishing one thing (last week), starting one thing (this week), improving one thing, then evaluating and planning the next step.

Links to prior posts are embedded in today’s kick-off where relevant — or find them all at the bottom of this post.

Join the challenge at any time and adapt it to fit your needs. If you join in — even well past the end of January — let us know what you are working on or the kind of strategies that work for you. If you blog about it, please share link to the challenge (you can use the JC badge, if you want to be festive), and share link to your post in the comments below.

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Week 2 Launch: Start Something

I mentioned last Monday, the challenge in starting is sometimes the pressure to finish a lingering project first (read more on that here). 

I’ve felt that way this week: I need to start production of this literary magazine, but ideas for revising my novel jump into my head (“finish something”), my reliable truck spent the week in the shop having its fuel pump replaced (“improve something”), and I’ve had to drop everything to attend meetings to plan events later in the semester or next year (“evaluate and plan“). 

Too often, the project you need to start is like a guy trying to elbow his way to place an order at a crowded bar, vying to get the barkeep’s attention.

This week’s first motivator: give yourself permission to claim the time.  Don’t wait to be less busy. Steal a chunk of time to get going, right now. Well. Finish reading this, then go.

Part of the pressure in starting something new is the feeling you have to set aside something else to do it. Not necessarily. You can continue using strategies to tinker with other projects, even as you focus on starting your new one.  I’ll post more later, but here are a couple strategies from Week 1:

Today: Select the Project You Will Start

In talking to friends, most have several things they want to start in 2013. For this challenge, pick one.  Don’t stress: you can start one now and start another one a couple months from now, or string several small starts to quick finishes.  The key is to stop waiting and jump in.

My goal is to start production of the literary magazine I have to produce for 150 writing students, which needs to be printed and delivered by the end of May.

If that were not mandatory, here are some of the other projects I could imagine taking on — which might be similar to your goals.

  • Apply for acceptance to a conference, workshop or MFA program. Summer programs like Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House or Grub Street will announce programming and accept applications now through March. (check my links page for more info)
  • Begin final revisions of a novel manuscript. Revisions might be “improving” or “finishing,” but this step is also the beginning of a new process, including new formatting, finding beta readers, finding agents and beginning querying, or learning the self-publishing process.
  • Begin submitting stories for publication. Submitting is a new step, involving finding publication targets, drafting cover letters, or organizing your tracking process.
  • Begin an online business. Several outlets allow for uploading materials I (or any of you) could market, and it’s the next step in projects I share with peers.
  • Beginnings in your day job or personal life are fair game. The literary magazine will parallel projects in your day job or for a freelance client. Same goes for projects like looking for a house, starting a job search, planning a wedding, getting ready for a baby.

How Do I Decide Which to Start?

My reflections on 2012 revealed that I’ve made my way through some challenges in recent years. One of the ‘rules’ that led to my best progress is:  Do first the thing that will make your life better tomorrow.

Ask yourself, for any project you consider taking on: will my life be better when this is done, or more of the same? What you start today is an investment in what your life will look like next week, next month and beyond.  If deciding between projects, do first the one that gets you closer to your overall goals. This might include:

  • Honor deadlines. Start first any projects where you committed to a fixed deadline.
  • Invest in tasks that empower you or give you more options. If you need to be employable, start a course that buys you credentials, certification or street cred, rather than one that’s just for fun.
  • Plant seeds for future success. Market now for clients you will need in the summer. Build your website or social platform now for the novel you’ll need to market next year. Submit stories, then wait for replies while working on your novel.
  • Take the first step in big projects. Some starts are just that first step on a big project. My litmag, for example, was really started with mock-ups and volunteer meetings and soliciting work last fall. Grad school starts with investigating programs or soliciting recommendation letters. You might only tackle this one step for now, with other steps taking place much later.
  • Did you try the 3-column to-do list in this post, to identify obstacles preventing you from moving forward? If so, consider starting a project that removes an obstacle. Start a task that increases income if lots of your projects are held back by a lack of money. While you might normally fight for time to work on your novel, starting a client project (or spring cleaning and yard sale) might allow you to replace your laptop — in turn, letting you work more on your novel.
  • Certain goals take priority in the category of: “Twenty years from now, you’ll regret more the things you didn’t do than those you did” (attributed to Twain, repeated by many). For those trying to finish a novel, prioritize that. It takes a long time to go from draft to edited and published copy in a reader’s hands; invest in getting closer to that. Every day you put off starting puts that end goal that much further out of reach. Other intangibles — like foreign travel or falling in love or dropping everything to play with your kids — fall in this category.
  • Protect the status quo. As with honoring deadlines, be sure to start projects that keep good things present in your life, like maintaining a healthy client relationship or success in your job.
  • Peace of mind counts. All this talk of improving life for tomorrow doesn’t mean you can’t have “start an herb garden” or “organize family photos” as your challenge this week. Will you feel better tomorrow for having done it? Go for it.

Your task for today is to select what you want to start. Share your goal in the comments if you want us to cheer you on. Tweet your goal with hashtag #januarychallenge or blog about it and share your link below.

Here’s what I’m wondering, for the next post:  What keeps you from starting a project that is important to you? Are you unsure what to do first? Are you afraid it won’t go well? Do you need resources, materials or answers before you can start?

Now, go!

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How the January Challenge Arose from Freelance Writing

Day One - BeginI began this month by proposing the January Challenge (finish something, start something, improve something, then evaluate & plan where to go next) not because it was the logical way of doing things but because, for many of us who are writing, each of our goals shares our attention with multiple competing tasks.

If we want to start that novel revision, we first have to finish this project for our day job. If we want to get started with story submissions, we first have to finish revising. As I addressed in 15 Strategies for Finishing Work  last week, much of what we do involves time management of competing priorities.

It just dawned on me to say:  I learned this cycle by freelance writing. 

Considering the interest many of you expressed when I blogged about day jobs, today is a reflection on why the finish-start-improve-plan cycle is so important to making progress as a writer.

Most of my freelance jobs evolve into long-term roles, with enough work and pay to become my sole client. Still, others involve sporadic projects with clients not sure of their own goals, projects too small to be substantial income, or even an occasional client who was slow to pay. For anyone considering freelancing, know that continually stoking the fire for new work is part of the weekly task list.

So it was from freelancing that I learned the overall writing skill: that a productive writing business involves constantly feeding the 4-step cycle of finishing, starting, improving and planning.

It’s illogical: why do I put finish before start, or before plan?

This week I covered a friend’s 4th grade class one morning and, as I presented her lesson on the animal lifecycle with the circular cycle of egg-chick-chicken-egg… I was reminded why I list finish before start.

Yes, on day one — like that “START HERE” space on a board game — you begin with “plan” and “start.”  But there’s only one “start here” space on that gameboard, and most of us are not really on day one of our writing.

Most of us have a half dozen or so projects floating (overlapping writing and family and clients or day job, etc. projects) so taking a valid, productive step forward with our writing involves getting something else finished and out of the way, first.

I can get started with submitting my writing, but maybe I need to finish revision first. I can start with revising my novel, but I need to finish last week’s day job project first. I can start an idea for a novel, but maybe I needed to clear away holiday-vacation emails from clients first. I can start with my big project (the literary magazine) this week, but needed to finish last week’s grading and semester planning first.

The Key: Stoking All 4 Steps of the Cycle

What is most important is this single concept: once these 4 steps rotate into a cycle, notice the overlap of planning your next steps, finishing remaining work, and starting something new.

Before you even finish one project, you should have been evaluating and planning for the next project you will be starting.  My husband was a pharmaceutical rep and, in sales, they referred to this as “pipeline.” You have what you can finish today, but have already planned and seeded what you will do next, with your next project ready in the pipeline.

In freelancing, this meant I had already been marketing for new clients before I approached the end of a project. In fiction, it might mean having short stories submitted to literary magazines then start work on revising that novel while you’re waiting to hear back. It might mean, as you head toward finishing that novel draft, thinking ahead to what will be needed to connect with agents — maybe anticipating summer writing conferences or learning how to write a query.

A Little of Each, Every Day (or Week)

Although I set up the January Challenge to address one step of the cycle for each week of this month, I kept my freelance business going by addressing all 4 steps of the cycle every week, if not every day.

Every week I had a task list of steps needed to complete a current project. I evaluated and planned what was needed for that publication, as well as where the next job would come from. I scheduled steps to get the next project going (if with the same client) or took marketing steps to keep the pipeline fed.  I improved the functioning of my business (sent invoices or reorganized or tweaked my (now offline) website). A little of each, every week, kept the machine constantly fed and moving productively forward.

In truth, particularly when I became a mom, the economy crashed and other personal challenges made life more complicated, it was applying all 4 of these steps that has brought about my most successful moments. On the job or scrambling with kids or working to finish writing — attending to all 4 steps keeps progress moving forward.

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write start badgeThis Week: Begin Something

That said, this week of the January Challenge will focus on Starting Something New (link takes you to next week’s launch).  In the meantime, think of a project you need to get underway to accomplish an important goal in 2013.

What do you have to begin in 2013?

Remember, this is a group challenge and we’d love to hear how it is working for you.  What goals do you need to take on (this week, this month or sometime this year)?  What strategies work for you? What obstacles keep you from getting started?

If you join in, we’d all love to hear how your challenge progresses: write about it on your blog (use the January Challenge badge if you’d like); include link to this original challenge, and be sure to come back here and share your link with us.

Be sure to check out the Week 2: Start Something launch later this week!

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January Challenge Week 1: Did I Succeed at Finishing?

grasp c Elissa Field*

Ahhhh…..

Three o’clock came on Monday, deadline for entering grades. Project finished. I met my goal for Week 1 of the January Challenge — I finished this one thing.

I’ve heard from two others who also finished their challenge for the week, and I’ve heard from many who are using this week’s challenge to prioritize how they will get projects finished later in the month, or at other times throughout the year.

What all of the posts and emails have acknowledged — and what I observed, working toward my deadline — are the hurdles and resistance that are particular to finishing a project.

  • In the week’s kickoff post (Week 1: Finish Something), we thought about resistance or obstacles that keep us from completing projects and used strategies to identify the real obstacle, to break the resistance down in manageable steps.
  • Then, Sunday’s post (Week 1: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work) shared several concrete strategies for keeping the work moving toward “done.”

Advice is great. I really do use all those tactics, and heard from so many of you how these kinds of strategies are useful.  But you just know I didn’t glide toward perfect completion of my project following all that advice to a T, without a hitch.

Today’s post shares the insights that came to mind as I applied the advice of those earlier posts (successfully and with rough spots) toward finishing my goal. As always, do share your own experiences in the comments, whether you are actively participating in the challenge or if you stumble upon it even months down the road.

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Avoid Wheel-Spinning

Any of my regular readers might notice that Sunday’s post of “14” strategies was updated to “15” as I realized I left off one that is key (now #8 on the list): avoid wheel-spinning.

One thing that is hard for writers is that finishing work requires shifting gears from the energy of generating lots of new ideas to limiting efforts to the tasks that get the darn thing done.

“Avoid wheel-spinning” recognizes that in those goals for working hours or word counts it is easy to be busy working, yet not focused on steps that will get the job done. My goal last weekend was just to get any remaining grades entered to close out last semester. Sure, that includes tasks like filing paperwork and reflecting on how the semester went. But it was wheel-spinning for me to spend half an hour making notes to a student on a paper that won’t be revised again.

Going back to the endzone metaphor I used in Running on the Grass: imagine you are the running back, carrying a football (your project) toward the endzone. Discipline yourself to avoid running sideways or backwards, or wondering what’s happening over on the baseball fields or suddenly stopping everything to jump rope. Finishing a project means only strides that take you closer to that endzone.

What’s Worth Finishing – and What to Drop

In a few responses from readers, I heard a continued hesitation to even take a project on. They liked the idea of finishing something for this week’s challenge but… you could just hear it in their voice: they weren’t sure they even cared about their project any more. I’m thinking that is worth its own post.  Don’t you hear a list forming in your head, of good reasons for finishing something vs. when to just drop it off the list?

For today’s sake, let’s just say: sometimes you have to amputate certain parts of a goal in order to get it done. In grading, I had one class that was hard to get finished. We made it through our main units, but there was one other assignment I always have students write.  We ran short on time because of classes cancelled during hurricanes, but I was going to be stubborn and force it in — one more paper to write, one more paper to comment on and grade (when already slowed down with the holidays and a cold).  A more seasoned friend shrugged.  There were plenty of grades to accurately reflect the students’ learning; nothing was going to be done with that “one more paper.”  There was no reason not to drop it.

Throughout the weekend, making my deadline involved knowing when to edit out steps. File student papers later, get them graded now. Trade information with a peer by email, rather than a lengthy meeting (when our friendship gets us chatting).  We all know this strategy from our daily lives: make sure the kids learn important values, but don’t worry if you mastered scrapbooking.

Pick your battles. Know what matters and what to drop.

Declaring it Done

Hand-in-hand with that, finishing a project requires knowing when to declare it done.

Please people. Last summer my goal was to polish the third revision of a novel whose characters and storyline were thoroughly written in order to query agents by September 1. What did I do to myself instead? Discovered a whole new thread for a main character’s motivation. Augh.  I mean, yes, okay, it might be a better book for it.  But do I not realize that this second-guessing kind of revision (requiring a thorough rewrite) is what kept me from ever querying the last one? Every time it was just about to finish its writing-marathon, my little novel would say, “You know, I think I’d like to go back and re-run mile 15 differently.”

In perfect irony, that novel draft I never queried has a scene where the main character is an artist, working on finishing a painting in her studio. Watching her, the artist’s daughter asks, How do you know when a painting is done? Roughly quoted, the mother answers, You never really do — just, at a certain point, it starts to stand on its own. At a certain point, you have to take your hands out of it.  If not, it would be sold, framed and on the wall in a collector’s house, and I’d still be taking it down to make one more change. 

For both of the first two points above, as I was grading I had to limit the tasks I took on. It was being a perfectionist that didn’t let me read a student paper without adding one more comment, even knowing the paper and the semester were done. And the definition of finished (grades entered in the software by the deadline) did not need that one last assignment crammed in.

It seems the key is to clearly define “done” for your project, early on in planning.  When discipline is needed, you can then edit out unnecessary tasks and distractions by evaluating whether or not they are needed to reach that definition of done, and hold yourself to declaring a finish line crossed when you reach it.

Build a 20% Cushion on Your Deadline

Deadlines help, as they draw the line in the sand after which there is no more tinkering to be done — but deadlines need a cushion, as problems always come up.

Later this week I’ll introduce my Begin Something challenge: I have a literary magazine that has to be printed and in student’s hands by the last day of school. Which means the printer has to have it no later than May 10th. Which means he really needs it by May 1st. Which means I need to tell myself I have to deliver it to him by a week before that, or even by April 15th. There are holidays and conflicts with other spring projects that month, which means my deadline for having it finished is really April 1st. (Heh. Did you hear my shriek at the thought of how soon that is?)

Something always comes up. A glitch. Weather. Someone you are waiting on who delivers something late. Someone goes on vacation or is out for surgery. A brilliant idea for a last minute change. Run out of paper or ink or…  And we, ourselves, are imperfect. Procrastinate. Lose confidence. Have a glitch in our software or lose a key piece or catch a cold.

My grades weren’t due to be posted until 3pm Monday. Monday was a teacher workday for entering the grades. Awesome: that gave me 5 hours to grade, right? Who could have expected that a tragedy at a school in Connecticut would spur a Monday morning safety review meeting? Still, 2 hour meeting leaves me 3 hours, right? Except the training meeting evolved into the local SWAT team (you planned for this, right? we all plan for sudden SWAT developments?) performing evacuation training on-site until past lunch. Then a follow up meeting. Then a friend with a question. Arrival and assembly of new desks, redesigning my class layout.  Planning for new classes.

I learned after my first year teaching: never expect to grade on a planning day. Have it done the night before. In a perfect world, if I were as smart as posting-advice-lists would imply, I would have set my deadline 2 weeks back, at the end of the semester– anticipating that a Christmas cold would leave me worthless for grading during my weeks off. We are imperfect — subject to colds and procrastination and wanting to run see a movie with a friend and maybe struggling through finishing certain steps of a project.

We have to build a cushion to accommodate that imperfection and expecting — it never fails — something will always come up.

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That Said, I Met My Goal — How Are You Doing?

write start badgeI have some stray housekeeping (returning papers, filing, etc.) that keeps my finish something goal from being completely cleared off my desk but, overall, I met my goal.

How are you doing with yours?

Most readers and friends I have talked to are working on their Week 1 project throughout the month (or even the year) — and really, none of us want to finish just one thing. As soon as I have time, I’ll work in finishing my grad school apps and getting stories out, not to mention those novel revisions. So we’ll continue to trade insight on what works.

Do share your thoughts in the comments.  What are you working on finishing?  Do any of these strategies ring true for you?  Or are there others that help you finish your projects?

Have any of you decided to completely drop a project from your to-do list?

If you have blogged about this challenge, please share a link to my original post (so people can read the challenge) and post a link to your blog here in the comments so we can read what you are up to!

Next up will be kick-off of Week 2: Start Something. Think about a project you need to get started — mine will be the lit mag.

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January Challenge: 15 Strategies for Finishing Work

write start badgeOn Thursday, I posted the kick-off for the January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something.

If you’ve missed prior posts: the January Challenge: Finish, Start, Improve, Plan attacks our 2013 goals and resolutions by focusing one week at a time.  Week 1 (that’s now) finish one thingWeek 2 start something, Week 3 improve something and Week 4 evaluate and plan where to go next.  Participate at any time — see the end of this post on how to get started.

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The goal this week is to finish one thing.  Today’s post trades notes on the successes and challenges we are encountering, as well as 14 key strategies for getting this goal done. (Thursday’s post gave strategies for breaking the project into manageable steps, getting ahold of any missing materials and otherwise addressing obstacles that keep you from getting started — head there if you need help with those first.)

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Week 1: How Are We Doing?

I shared that my “finish one thing” goal for the week is to complete grading from fall semester.  So far, I’m succeeding: I’ve completed one class, jotted notes for Monday meetings for classes that are starting, and organized the papers I’ll finish grading for the other two classes. Not docile, but tamed.

Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum — chances are we are all trying to finish this one thing while other projects compete for attention.  My challenge this week may be grading, but I still have a novel that is my priority and two little boys who’d prefer I not forget about them (“There’s your food, right next to the dog’s kibble…”), and of course all those post-holiday distractions.

In sharing your goals for the week (or the month or, in some cases, for throughout the spring — use this challenge as it works best for you, and do jump in at any time even once the week is done!), many of you have acknowledged being short on time or distracted by other priorities.  I’ve been fighting a cold and struggling with a bratty urge to enjoy my last days of vacation with my kids before classes start again. Every time I sit down to finish grading, it’s not student essays but my current novel draft that fill my thinking. (Sing it folks: should I not be thrilled to be on fire about novel writing in a days I have off from teaching? It’s hard to compete with that.)

Week 1 tackles “unfinished” projects, and so often these old to-do items have a hard time claiming attention against more fun, more glamorous, more interesting, more entrenched or more profitable siblings on the to-do list.

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15 Strategies for Taming Unfinished Projects:

The point of sharing a challenge is to trade the strategies that help us get through the rough spots.  Here are 14 tricks that work to overcome resistance, find discipline and claim time for your project — balancing to finish this one thing while moving on with other priorities in your life.

  1. Get Started. It sounds obvious, but the biggest hurdle is taking the first step. Do it, now.
  2. Draw yourself in with an easy first step. Say, “Write for 15 minutes,” or “Just sort the papers,” or “Type the handwritten scene you wrote last month.” Kick off a day of novel revisions by just running a spell-check, or printing a draft for reading. Get past blank-page reluctance by baiting yourself with something easy — often, that’s enough to get you hooked.
  3. Find something to get out of the way. Scan to see if a “big” project has something simple you can knock off right away. With my grading, half of one stack was already graded– I only had to record the grades and file the papers. Shorter stack already. With my novel draft, I could type some handwritten edits before diving into major shuffling in Scrivener. If you’re tackling a cleaning project like the garage or the playroom, find things to throw away. If it’s cleaning up after the holidays, get that tree to the curb.
  4. Use the rule of 30. Get through large projects by asking yourself to work only 30 (or 20 or 45) minutes at a time. I have 8-12 hours of grading, but asked myself to work on it in 30 minute segments, several times throughout the day.
  5. Map your project in manageable steps. For grading, I divided the papers by assignment, then took them one chunk at a time, with a pad beside me to make notes for semester-start meetings or planning. For unwieldy writing projects, create a to-do list: write a “shopping list” of details that need research or interviewing, list scenes that need to be written or revisions planned. For short story submissions, make a list of 20 magazines to submit to, write a brief cover letter, proofread your story and format it for submitting. For revising a novel draft (say, one written in NaNoWriMo), your list might be: read draft, delete bad material, highlight best text, map plot points, assess word count goals, list missing elements. Then take on one at a time.
  6. Find measurable milestones. Each step should be a mini-success. Check-marks on a list of steps can be affirming.  Take pictures of each step of laying out that garden. Or set arbitrary motivators. In grading, watching columns in the gradebook software fill with grades (and stacks move off my dining table) is visual incentive.
  7. Set daily or weekly writing goals.  All industries set quotas to know, measurably, if a goal will be reached and adjust work when it’s falling behind.  In Friday Links, I shared writer Laura Maylene Walter’s post, which celebrated the milestone of 60,009 words by December, having set herself daily word count goals which she kept as a growing motivational tally.  Writing friends have shared daily goals of 500 or 1,000 words for regular progress, or goals of 2,000 when pushing toward a deadline. Other writers use hourly goals. Writer Ann Hood sets a goal to write 2 hours per day, and starts by revising the prior day’s work. Another option is to set page or chapter goals. Software (Excel, Outlook, or Scrivener) can track your milestones and keep you motivated.
  8. Avoid “wheel-spinning.” When you are starting a project, that’s the time for spit-balling, brainstorming lots of ideas, throwing lots of them at the wall to see what sticks. But when you shift to the goal of finishing, you need to be wary of spending your daily goals (word counts or time for working) on anything that doesn’t take you closer to “done.” Build an internal radar to detect when you are working but it’s wheel-spinning — lots of energy, but not taking you closer to your goal. Respect the energy of those new ideas (jot them down for later), but redirect your work back toward steps that take you directly to your goal.
  9. Balance this project with other priorities using the rule of 30 or the rule of 5’s. The rule of 30 (above) is great for alternating between key projects. Saturday, I wrote for 30 minutes, then sorted papers for 30, then wrote/researched for 30, then graded for 30, then a break and chores, then…   A variation of this is the rule of 5’s: alternate between projects, doing 5 things at each. I got myself started this morning saying, “Just do 5 papers,” then got over a mess my sons made by saying, “Just put away 5 things…” Especially in a week when we’re combatting post-holiday distractions, this counting approach can help you stay productive in competing tasks, like writing thank-you notes or putting away decorations or facing an overflowing email box at work. (I use “do 5” to get started or during breaks, and “work for 30” to make real progress.)
  10. Work to a deadline. New writers hate deadlines; seasoned writers love them. They declare a day when the work must be done. I will finish grading, because the deadline is tomorrow. There is no more tinkering with it after that. (Bonus: clears the decks for the next priority.) In creating measurable steps, start at your deadline. Write your list backwards, assigning daily or weekly steps to get there. Divide the work by the number of days to set your daily goals. Adjust daily quotas when these goals aren’t being met.
  11. Block out time-wastes. Especially if you are trying to finish a piece of writing, distraction-free time is a gift you give yourself. Stop in and say hi to us here(!), but otherwise avoid being sucked into email, social media or the latest marathon repeat of Top Chef.
  12. Do this goal first. Borrowed from my daily writing strategy: I drop everything and write before other things take over. Combined with other timing strategies, it’s easy to claim 30 minutes (or do 5 things) toward this goal, before anything else. A variation: work on it while the coffee is brewing.
  13. But build in healthy breaks. Minds go numb without food, and many writers swear by the value of a walk or run to release creative energy. Similarly, connection with family, friends and the outside world keep you inspired — so don’t feel guilty taking time out for these.
  14. Read, or seek experts. Reading triggers inspiration. More focused than that: if you are planning a class or conducting research or rethinking your marketing plan, look for advice that can keep you from reinventing the wheel. Taking time for a twitter search or “shout out” to friends might score time-saving advice.
  15. Talk about it. Especially for a stale project, renew your interest by telling someone you want to finish it this month. Tell us here in the comments, or blog about it, post pictures of your progress, or tell a friend or your family. Get someone else on board.

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What’s Your Challenge — or Favorite Strategy?

Whether applying the January Challenge this week or not… What kinds of projects do you fight to get finished? Is it a struggle to get a novel draft to submission-ready? Are you not sure what to do next, in building your platform or writing your blog?

What unfinished projects make your yearly goals for 2013?

And what strategies have you found for getting things done? 

Please share your thoughts in the comments.  If you blog about your challenge, please share a link to this post and share link to your article so we can visit your site as well!  You can use the January Challenge badge, if you want to be festive.  (I’m sure many will stumble on this post long past this week in January, but all participation is welcome, even once the month is done.)

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January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan

write start badgeNew year, fresh start. After yesterday’s reflection (2013 Day One: Reflections, Goals and a Challenge), it’s time to get to work.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the JanPlan challenge being hosted by writer Christa Desir. Another writing friend, the lovely Khara House, is hosting a challenge for improving your blog or website. (Keep reading – links to both are below.)

As I planned to tackle each of these as well as the to-do list so many of us start the year with, I found that while Christa challenges that we finish one thing and Khara proposes that we improve one thing, I also need to start a major project this month (eek – a literary magazine due by April).  I want to do both Christa and Khara’s challenges but my month was forming into its own January challenge: focusing on one approach for each week of the month.

If you would like to join in, my January Write Start Challenge looks like this:

Each week — starting tomorrow — I’ll post a kick-off challenge, sharing what I will be tackling that week as well as any articles, challenges or steps that will help motivate your own project.

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Here is an overview:

  1. Isn’t it true that Week One of a new year includes finishing old business?  If you have time off for the holidays, maybe you can finish an incomplete story. Maybe there’s an unfinished goal from 2012. TOMORROW will feature the kick-off post for this challenge, but you can get a head-start by checking out Christa Desir’s JanPlan 2013 challenge here.
  2. In Week Two, I will begin a new semester — and production of the literary magazine for my students. New starts involve identifying key steps, scheduling meetings with key players, and setting deadlines. Sad but true, new starts involve a little fear, so we can jointly take a deep breath and plunge in.  While I dedicate the week to this new start, no project happens in a vacuum, and I’ll address how to balance a new start with the “finishing” and “improving” of ongoing projects. (Launch for Week 2 here)
  3. In Week Three, I will focus on improving one aspect of my writing business. Depending on where I am at that point, it will either be submissions or my blog.  **See the note below about Khara House’s challenge , if you think you might want to improve your blog this month.  
  4. Week Four will be the wild-card, to evaluate where you stand and plan goals for the coming months. This might include aspects of all three of the prior weeks, as new beginnings are planned, progress is evaluated for more improvement, and more projects are targeted for finishing. It will be a time to reflect on what is going well and organize for success.

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How to Get Started:

To join in at any time during the month:

  • Jump in with a comment below this post or any later posts in the month.
  • Post your own goals on your website.  Include a link to this post (and links to Christa or Khara’s posts if your goal relates to their challenge). Grab the badge above, if you want to be festive!
  • Come back and share a link to your post here so other readers can see how your January Challenge is going! 

Most of my readers are writers of some sort, but everyone’s goals are welcome — whether finishing painting that living room (a-hem) or starting an acting class or… What will you be up to this month?

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Our Lost Jungle "I <3 My Blog" challenge

Our Lost Jungle Challenge

Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge

If the one thing you want to improve this month will be your blog, I do recommend that you join Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge and participate throughout the month. Khara is a fellow member of Wordsmith Studios, a great group of writers, and I can assure that she will host a lively, informative and supportive challenge throughout the month.  She begins the challenge today by tackling editorial calendars — find it at Our Lost Jungle here or join the Facebook “I ♥ My Blog” event here.

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Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Prompt

Writing Life: Today’s Job – Nonwriting Days

Considering my last two posts had to do with managing time and keeping the writing work moving forward, I shift gears today.

For me, today’s writing job, no exaggeration, is to sleep.

A week ago, I had been driving back and forth to Miami for three days to complete a writing workshop with Ann Hood. If you live outside a major city (think: New York, LA, Chicago, even DC), you know what that means. I live 60 miles north of Miami: the drive there is bearable; the drive out at rush hour is stop and go for two hours. Add to that, my son was home sick the whole time and we had family in town, so it was an exhausting few days.

My writing job in the week(s) leading up to the workshop had included preparing and sending a manuscript for the workshop, then reading and commenting on the 15 manuscripts for the other writers in the workshop. I mixed that in between commenting on student essays for classes I teach, and responding to submissions to the literary magazine I read for. This was in addition to regular daily writing, which included new material for Wake, a brief interview, and a couple blogs you’ve seen here.

The workshop then provoked new writing tasks. While the workshop was to focus on beginnings (making the first 250 words work), Ann Hood mentioned at one point how, in draft, characters most like the writer are often the flattest (Note: I blog about this advice later, here and here). Her advice inspired new insights into a main character I hadn’t spent much time with yet, so last weekend was spent writing two important new scenes. Also, the main response Ann had to my manuscript was a comment that it had reminded her of writer Alice McDermott. I knew the name, but had not read McDermott’s work, so a new writing task was to find and begin reading Charming Billy (which later made my annual best-reads list).

Round about then, the inevitable happened: mom caught the 8 year old’s cold.

This is how the week played:  I teach, and am in the last month of the year. My house looks like sheep have moved through.  Not hyperbole.  As a single mother, I have been done in by my house. The disposal died, causing the dishwasher not to work, and I won’t have time to get a repairman in until next week, which means I’m washing dishes.  I have student essays to read, which are completely disorganized after leaving all the drafts for them to work on with a sub while I was in Miami.  I spent Sunday teaching my son how to restore the research project he’d gone off-road with at school, helping him select a new topic, and directing him through online research.  Monday: student work and teaching, and helping the son who’d missed school all last week catch up. Tuesday: called in to sub for a colleague, so missed my planning time, which got shifted to the evening.  Wednesday, slept as late as possible.  Wednesday night: out with my college boyfriend, who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade and happened to be passing through town on business.  Thursday: shot.  Teach, then out late for son’s spring musical.  Friday, teach early, all day, then out all night to deliver and pick up son from his first middle school dance.

Today’s job: sleep.  Do not yet open eyes to the housekeeping and laundry put off through this week, waiting for you to wake up.

None of those things seem to have anything to do with writing.  They sound like the writer’s nemesis: a list of all the things that kept me from writing today.

I don’t see it that way.

To me, when I’ve just posted two articles on how to make the most of your writing time, it seems only fitting for the third to be about all the things that happen in the rest of our time, and the fact that some days your job is really just to sleep.  Some days, it is to mend house, or to jockey for strategic seating at your 8-year-old’s spring musical, or to go to work early to cover a friend’s class or to assist with the school Eucharist where the mayor shows up to honor your retiring head of school.  Other days it is to sit shoulder-to-shoulder as your son struggles through his first research project or be on hand as he dresses for his first dance.  Some nights it is to sit at a table along the sidewalk at Rocco’s Tacos with an old friend who has come to town, laughing and talking until the busboy says he needs to carry in the table and chairs because the bar is closed.

Strategize your writing time, yes.  But there are days when a writer’s life is about the living of life, the connections with others.  When insight and understanding comes from having lived through the weakness of sickness or broken appliances or bad schedules and struggling children.

So today’s post is in honor of those days — recognizing that today’s writing chore really is to sleep, recovering from the week’s experience so I’ll have it in me to write tomorrow.

An observation I would offer is that much of this week I was pushed out of my comfort zone.  Things did not go the way I wanted. I had to put my intentional schedules aside to do things I hadn’t planned on doing. I even managed to back into my ex’s car in my driveway – while leaving him to watch our kids so I could go out to meet the boyfriend I’d dated before marriage. Crunch.

As writers, we don’t write “screw up” as a to-do item on our calendar, but isn’t the imperfection of life where much of inspiration comes from? Awkwardness, inconvenience, failures, crossed wires, confusion.  The realistic brokenness of life happens out there — not in all our planning while sitting at the computer or our writing desk or wherever we work — but sometimes in those hookie moments when we needed to be working but life intervened.  It’s just worth saying, to all of us struggling to work writing hours into our days, there are times to embrace the chaos of life, wecome it in and even count it as part of your writing goal.

I wish you all a productive week — in the hours things go as you planned, and when they don’t!

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Writing Life: What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here (& 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time)

Northwest 200 1993 – R. Dunlop

Have you ever had days you moved through furtively restless, with the certain impatience there was something you needed to do?  A pressure that meant you could not go outside to trim the bougainvillea that nearly clotheslined the UPS man (in all its bloody thorniness), could not (as you had promised) take the boys to the movies, could not spare the hour to catch up with your dear friend in LA (even though, for once, the time diff was in your favor), could not do laundry or dishes or even think of writing…but couldn’t name source of the urge?

I spent today in the tufted leather chair my boys expect me to sit in when I work (I work better sitting on my bed, but look so much lazier there, so that the leather chair claims me).  I had the laptop in my lap.  I had lists of things to do, and those that had been accomplished to check off.  I’d written three blogs this week, which needed proofing before posting.  I’d gathered more pictures for another Living with Books.  I’d traded notes with staff at a TT race in Ireland, that gave me just the detail to write an inner monologue for Wake‘s mose elusive character (where he dreamed himself the race marshall responsible for warning approaching racers of a hazard in the road, but somehow failed, as the character does ultimately, in preventing a family member’s death).  I had 14 brief manuscripts to read and comment on for a workshop with Ann Hood starting Wednesday, and three more litmag submissions to read and respond to.

More urgently, 69 student essays and 17 preliminary research packets await comments for classes this week, with mid-period grades due tomorrow.

I assumed that was source of the restlessness: resentment at spending my Sunday grading, guilt not to be with the boys.  I love teaching writing but have to confess myself worse than the students this year in having early-onset of summer fever.  As much as I’ll miss this fabulous year when it ends, right this moment I want nothing more than hours alone to myself to read and write and play with my boys and maybe, if I have to, get the house clean.  Or go on a date.  Student papers drag their toes in self-conscious awareness there’s no competing with all that. Together, the weighty bag of papers and I went through the day watching guilty marathon episodes of Miami Towing on tru.tv (yeah, that bad) knowing I was clearly in a state of avoidance.

The boys went out to let me work but the urgent impatience continued.  With the irritable absentmindedness of a nervous tick, I flicked back and forth through software on my computer and online.  Metaphorically pacing.  Searching.  Waiting for something.  Every twenty minutes or so, a tweet would come through, an email would come through, friendly comments and connections from my friends in the ether.  A good article to read, an interesting piece of news.  I’d be sated, momentarily, like easing a junkie’s craving, so that yes, it seemed, maybe that was it: just boredom.  Avoiding the essays.  Loving the connection of fellow writers.  Avoiding the essays.

Just as quickly, the craving would be back, the pacing, the constant flickering hunt through the buttons on screen.

But, whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t here.

The boys came home, breaking my trance.  I broke free of the leather chair (who may find itself summarily dismissed for its continued failure to aid in productivity), went upstairs to where the beginning of twilight lit the bay window of my room like a treehouse.

Sitting here reminded me of the hour stolen before teaching last Thursday: writing the scene where this elusive character revealed himself, pulling the long unused key to his parents’ house from his wallet, his men turning away in denial of how his hand shook, scraping the brass face of the lock before he could turn the key.  The house of the death he’d caused, the main character still thinking him a victim while the shear act of turning away had revealed to him that his closest friends had thought him at fault all along.

Where all day there had been restlessness, I am now there in that novel — in the scene just written, in the race getting ready to be underway in Northern Ireland (in the real world) which the elusive character’s father was famed for winning before his death (in the novel).  In the scene still in my head, wanting my attention.  Awareness fills me, as it does, with the engulfing physical and emotional presence a work in progress can have.

I realize with a mix of frustration and relief this is the answer I looked for all day.  The novel.  I want everything else — the grading, the cleaning, the movie, the duties — to fall away and leave me dozens of hours to disappear into finishing this story.  It’s frustrating because the timing is off.  I budget time for fiction, but today’s hours were allotted to getting grades entered and I’m being bratty to complain about it.  I’m lucky enough to be working only part-time this year, to have 3 days off for a workshop this week, to have 2 months home this summer between teaching.  Wait, impatient novel.  Your turn is coming.

But, even with the limited time, I pause to enter this post to say one thing: what a relief it is, and a joy, to know the writing I am doing has this powerful a pull on me.  To know that, even when it has to wait its turn, it is strong enough to leave me pacing and craving the work.  Relentless: that’s the nickname of the motorcycle race coming up in Northern Ireland this month.  I like that, as it fits the relentlessness of this urge I have to get this story down.

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5 Things I Could Have Done to Make Today More Successful:

Yeah, I know better.

1.  Write first.  What relief I would have felt, had I given myself an hour, even, to get that one scene down before trying to work on other things.

2. Not let interruptions begin, in the first placeBad, leather chair, bad.   Sounds like I’m kidding, but fact is, this chair is aimed at the tv, in a room crowded with the boys’ toys, causing stifling chi even when the tv is off.  I know this to be true.  The trick is to know yourself and not invite the disaster in to begin with.  I should have begun the day in the room where I knew I worked more productively.

3. Don’t worry what other people think.  I started my day in the family room because I was waiting for the boys’ dad to pick them up. He would have taunted me for “sitting in bed all day” if I’d been working in my room when he got there.  So what?  I should have done what I knew to be best, regardless.

4. When you get in a rut, break it right away. Okay, so yeah, it was hysterical seeing the crazed big man stuck in the passenger window of his car, fighting to keep the tow truck driver from pulling away.  But, yo.  As I procrastinated into the third episode of Miami Towing?  Take a hint.  Break the trance.  Go for a run.  Go to that movie with the boys.  Do anything — but don’t let the procrastination take over.

5.  In avoidance mode? Use a timer and break work into 15 or 30 minute increments. Grade 30 minutes, then give 10 to something rewarding, whether that be a break with friends online or reading for the workshop later in the week, or a turn with fiction, getting that new scene down.  Several 30 minute increments would have left me much more productive than the day turned out.

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Worth Reading:  For friends who have been participating in Robert Lee Brewer’s Social Media Platform challenge this month (#mninb on twitter), I’ll end with a link to a great article by Jane Friedman: read this for the great checklist, providing an interesting approach for deciding how to balance time between writing and building platform. Comments following the article are just as insightful.

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Best to all of you, who struggle with the ongoing need to balance writing with the other demands of life.  If you have similar challenges, or insights for what works well for you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like minded bloggers!

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Filed under Novel Writing, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Mother, Writer… the house is a mess but no one’s died yet

I did not write or revise as much as I should have last week. I had one of those weeks where we get overly preoccupied with waiting for responses.

Unfortunately, I’ve arrived at summer ready to rock at the same time the rest of the world (myself included, in many ways) is embracing summer’s doldrums. In our own ways, all of us are lolling by the pool with a mojito, or floating in the lake, minted ice tea in one hand, other dragging in marvel at the cool swirling water.

As restful as it is, summer is key work time for me, with fewer expectations on my hours than any other time in the year. I’ve been thrilled to feel my novel in progress vividly playing out in my mind, coming to the page as it needs to, as are revisions to previous works in the wings.

But I’ve been impatient, jumpy with that unnamed energy you get when you’ve put work out there and are waiting to hear back. Normal submission replies, sure, and then there’s the story out to an editor who has always praised my work, which, according to Duotrope, is lingering a good 40 days longer than other replies are taking. Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve checked the submission managers once or twice.

Clearly, last week’s impatience had to find direction.

I put the energy to use by playing with online resources. I’ve been a twitter skeptic, but found it useful, clicking links or following threads which unearthed articles and resources I’d have had no reason to discover otherwise. (I also find it amusing to feed twitter random lines from my work, eerily disembodied or meaning even changed, once reduced to 140 characters.)

I followed leads that helped me discover new publications or update information on ones I’d fallen out of touch with. I read some great work, and enjoyed sharing links for a few of these, and downloaded a couple writers’ books via Kindle. I submitted work to a couple of the magazines I’d discovered/rediscovered, and calendared reading dates for those I want to submit to when reading opens again in August or September. Yeah, I rechecked submission managers a few more times, but enjoyed more connecting with writers, editors, agents and others in the business, in that water cooler way that twitter and facebook afford, that is nearly impossible without the virtual world.

But… at a certain point, I was still hyper puppy.

I wrote a blog, which I’d lapsed doing since December. I wrote a new story start while at the pool with my boys. But new starts are another distraction when you have work to finish. We’d been at my dad’s for father’s day which had me off-line, but also no writing while we visited.

Coming back Monday, it was time to declare a no-interruptions mode.

The meditative hour of driving back from my dad’s, through grazing lands and orchards beneath that broad, blue Florida sky, had loosened thoughts I’d not yet developed about the main character in the main novel I’ve been working on, the one whose characters tended to lean against the counters, arms crossed in an attempt at patience when my morning or evening were taken over with cooking for my sons.  (The mother character might get on quietly with her own business, in her silent way, but he would be unbending. Did I really need to marinate before grilling? Did I need to make spaghetti from scratch; did I not know these things were available in pre-made forms? Had I not considered take out? Better yet, fast food? He is an impatient soul, fuming, but I forgive him considering the answer of his life or death awaits my piecing together those patches of draft saved in multiple Word docs. Get on with it, he rightfully urges.)

It was the mother I’d written least about, and on my drive home, a single image was surfacing of her waiting for the mail, then switching to a new hobby at the point she believed her lover dead and no longer able to write.

“Give me one hour,” I told my sons, when we arrived home.

I set a timer, threatened the pain of no trip to a store they’d asked to go to if they spoke to me once before it went off: “Don’t interrupt unless you’re bleeding or on fire.”

I put on headphones and music to block distraction.

I opened my add-on draft and let her speak to me. The mother wanted to tell me about the meaning of waiting for flowers to bloom. To get there, that one hour gave me 1700 words about the months after her son was born, an odd fog of experience that put on paper things I’d never thought how to express before.

There would be a need, later in the novel, for some justification of her actions, but this little chunk of text accomplished authentically, with one short revelation, what might otherwise have taken reams of less effective explanation. I love that kind of writing more than any other.

I claimed another hour later to expand on it. My mind was again wholeheartedly present in the novel, her dreams and nightwaking thoughts appearing a vivid blue-green haze so that I understood fully how the final bridge would take place, from that moment of action, to this of reflection, to how they were about to play out. Netflix, you’re no competition to watching a novel spin out in my mind.

Kudos go in part to last week’s internet distractions.

That surfing has its place, as do all the administrative distractions, in the overall business of writing. Motivation to claim that hour to write was actually spurred by an article I came across during my hyper-twit hours: Novelist Mary McNamara’s A working mother’s guide to writing a novel (LA Times). As a mom with sons home for the summer during my key writing months, her advice hit home.

Disciplined hours here and there have given me 9,700 words that needed to be written in the past two weeks. Hopefully the boys will not be bleeding or on fire any time soon, as it’s nearly time to lace all these bits of draft together, and see how close this new novel is to done.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Running on the Grass

I’ve been happy to say I had a short story accepted for publication, coming out later this month.  Not only was it accepted, but it was accepted by an editor whose accomplishments and taste I admire.  Short of quoting his actual email, I can say I could not have asked for higher praise in the words he used to express pride in publishing the story.

You must understand the relative isolation and uncertainty in which most writers work.  The accepted story was written in parts over a period of nearly ten years.  It is a story of singular intensity — a story I initially wrote in response to the challenge: “Write something that scares you to put on paper.  Write something one would not say out loud.”  I did.  I wrote something that scared me.  And I did it in a way that was unapologetic in not hiding behind any narrative artifice — no gentle introductions, no fluffy segues. (Inspiration for story mentioned here.) It came together as an act of artistry and bravery, but also as a piece that would not fit the needs of all editors as they allocated the limited space in their literary journals.  In its first forays out for publication, it drew praise and near misses, but also confusion over a hurdle I could not at that time see the solution to.

I was a young parent by then.  My husband spent three years slashing his way into a higher paying job in order to support our little family so I could stay home most hours with our son.  Babies take more hours than one might think.  By the second son, I’d given up a freelance gig because of its unpredictable demands.

After years of telling myself that being a professional writer required my willingness to make sacrifices to dedicate myself to my work, I was suddenly feeling guilty over the time and expense the writing had cost — and still no bestseller on the shelf.  This fierce story brought home a near miss from Paris Review and The Sun, praise from Esquire.  But most readers have no idea the number of submissions a work might take to find the right editor, the right publication, at the right time.  The numbers game can become wearying.

At a point, I chastised myself over the near misses.  I assumed those close to me were wearying as well, and began to say: “If I were a football player, no matter how close I’d gotten to the end zone, at a certain point, if I’d never crossed the goal line, it was just a lot of running around on grass.”

Sharing this the other day, a writing colleague said that if they’d had near misses at publications like Paris Review, they couldn’t imagine doubting their abilities.  But it felt like time for some professional humility.  If I sold TVs, my shop would not be in business if sets never left the store with paying customers.  I was willing to consider maybe I was more suited to novel length, and just not a short story writer.   No question, it was a little personal trash talk.  The Army goads, “Go big or go home.”  I goaded myself to either be a writer who crosses that endzone, or own up that I might be just running on grass.

My aunt had a national champion quarter horse when I was young.  Gorgeous, gorgeous mare.  As her trophies mounted, they chose to breed her with an equally gorgeous and accomplished stallion, named Robert Redford.  The filly born was a spectacular, glowing chestnut with a perfect star on her forehead.  Next to her chocolate bay mother, she drew gasps.  She would be a star.  Yet, as time came for her to be saddle-trained, turned out there was something off in her fore-cannons (shins, for non-horsefolk).  They’d work her and fail, and have to take a break, a few months off, then try again.  Try and try again.  My aunt stood beside her, this gorgeous horse she couldn’t ride, and struggled with frustration.

Solution?  Turn the filly to pasture, let her legs strengthen.  Turn her out to run on the grass.

In writing communities, how often we run into young writers seeking advice because they are so desperate to have success now — today, on the day and time they scheduled it, within a framework their questioning families can accept.

But it’s sometimes like that filly.

I was thrilled the day it clicked in my head: the ironic parallel between the football metaphor I used to insult my efforts and the memory of that filly out kicking her heels in the thick grass of a Michigan hillside.

Sometimes writing is all about running on the grass.

We schedule our hours to work.  We hone our skills.  We read and write with professional determination.  We push ourselves to reach that completed draft, then whip ourselves all over again through the real work of revision.  We force ourselves to be humble and brave, at once.  But, in the end, as with life itself, a-ha’s and true insight and seeing the forest despite the trees don’t always arrive on a schedule.

I ran on the grass for three or four years while raising tiny babies, steeping in the mortal life’s experience that parenthood is, without scheduling time to write about it.  And one morning woke up with a full novel spilling out so voraciously that I could type fourteen hours a day and still take months to get it down.  A second novel came nearly as easily.  And one day, a short story.

It reminded me I like writing short stories and I went back to them — no longer with the drudgery of one fatigued by unmet expectations, but with the liveliness of one fresh from a wild gallop in the grass.

I understood clear as day, for the first time, why I had named a character Nixon and how a certain meaning I’d always felt about this one story had never made it onto the page.  I rewrote it.  I sent it out.  Acceptance came in a phone message I received while standing in a circle of my writing students, unable at first to explain my sudden emotion.

So publication this month comes with its own double reward.  This story crossed the end zone, but with the refreshed appreciation that there is something to be said for running on the grass.  There would be no game without it and — whether a running back, a red filly or a writer — that time on the grass is when so much of the thrill and accomplishment take place.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother