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The art of finishing

To do

At the beginning of the year, I was writing Blindsided, the forthcoming third book in my Men of Steele series (look for it in February!), while simultaneously creating a new training platform and expanding my Scrivener course materials to include more screenshots, more detail, and videos.

I set deadlines for both, happily announcing them to my newsletter recipients, thinking this would force me to meet them.

But my deadlines were unrealistic given the scope of each project and the number of significant events/changes going on in my life. I made myself sick trying to stay on schedule for both projects. If I was writing, I felt guilty that I wasn’t working on the class. If I was creating course content, I wanted to be writing.

It doesn’t help that I’m my own boss for both. I don’t miss working for someone else, but there are some advantages to the typical day job, one being that your non-writing work hours have already been prescribed to you. (Others include a steady paycheck and face-to-face human contact…)

Setting my own hours is the hardest part. I either don’t work enough or I never stop.

So, I was struggling until I read a short article that had a huge impact (I’m sorry I don’t remember who wrote it). The gist was this: You will never finish anything—at least not in a timely manner—if you constantly divide your attention. Instead, list your projects in priority order and work on the first one until it’s done. Then move to the second. Repeat.

Despite the fact that I knew this approach was more effective—and applied the same “single-tasking” idea to my daily priorities—I had rebelled against it because I didn’t want to stop writing for two months to update my classes.

But the reality was that if I didn’t, the courses wouldn’t be done before we moved to California, which meant they probably wouldn’t get done until fall, if at all. And the book probably wouldn’t be done either.

So I quit writing (so painful!) and focused on my class platform and lessons. Then I got back to the book. Now I have a new site and a finished manuscript, despite the huge distraction in the middle of my year where I accomplished very little.

Moving forward, I’m trying to set my schedule such that I can still work on training and writing, but one always has precedence. The other gets attention when I need a break.

Right now, my manuscript is with an editor, so my main focus has shifted to creating a Scrivener for iOS course. Research, craft reading, and fleshing out the next book are secondary activities that I do when I need a break. My plan is to finish the course before it’s time to work on edits.

The single-focus concept is simple, but my daily process is a perpetual work in progress, and I have to fight the urge to work on everything at once to feel productive. Occasionally I have to stop and ask myself which is more valuable: Many unfinished projects in various stages of completion, or a single finished project?

The answer is easy.

So, do you struggle to tame your project list? I’d love to see your tips for tackling it.

Tracking Progress in Scrivener up at Writer Unboxed

progress bar with work in progress written by hand

Despite the craziness of landing in a new town and house hunting last week, I managed to get my latest post written for Writer Unboxed on time. (Yes, I probably should have written it long before the move so I wouldn’t have to stress.)

What I failed to do was let you know about it! If you’ve ever wanted to know how to set manuscript and writing session goals and track your progress toward them in Scrivener, this post is for you.

I hope you had a fabulous weekend. Enjoy!

Piling it on: expectations and stress

woman with to-do list

In my first job as a programmer, my company’s sales team consistently promised clients super-short turnaround times that we couldn’t meet without working serious overtime, sometimes as much as 16-hour days.

Talk about stress.

Had they given us another day or two for each project, I might not have been so glad to quit when we moved.

Same project, different timeline. The projects themselves weren’t inherently stressful. It was the company’s unrealistic expectations that made them so.

Sadly, now that I work for myself, it turns out I’m not much better than that old sales team at setting realistic expectations. I’m not even talking about big things, like publishing deadlines.

I’m talking about my daily to-do list. In my head there’s this fictional world where I can “handle” my email in 20 minutes, compose and publish a blog in under an hour, and consistently produce 3000 words a day.

Hahahahahahaha.

That’s called Fantasy Land.

When I plan out my day (poorly) and don’t meet my goals, I get stressed. Over the long term, repeated stress takes time off your life, weakens your immune system (so you feel like crap AND lose more productive time), and turns you into an irritating house companion.

So, the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in having too many things to do (though I also need to learn to trim my list), but in not allotting myself enough time in which to accomplish them.

A to-do list with 18 items that I’ve taken care to schedule realistically—with buffer time for things like potty breaks, food, and general miscalculation—might keep me busy, but at the end of the day I’ll be feeling pretty good.

Yet, a list with three items can bring me low if improperly handled.

I’d love to say I’ve slain this beast, but I’d be lying. It’s something I have to re-address every few months or so because I get lazy and start winging it, and then start stressing…

Here’s my current approach to managing my towering to-do list:

1. I’m taking note of how long repeated tasks actually take, and using that to set a more achievable schedule.

2. I’m prioritizing my list so the most important things get done first (Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy has great suggestions). Even if I don’t get to everything, I’ll at least get to the items that matter most.

3. I’m going to bed earlier so I can get up earlier. I’m a night owl, but I’m more productive if I start my day early and get the key tasks—like writing—done before the day “starts” for real.

I actually set several alarms on my phone to remind me to get ready for/go to bed. The key is not to ignore them. 😉

4. I (usually) create a daily schedule. I’ve been hinting at this throughout, but when I know I have a busy day ahead, I’ll plan it out the night before, down to the quarter hour. If I have an appointment or event, I work backwards from it.

I schedule everything that happens prior to the appointment—with a bit of buffer for derailment—and then follow it with a list of other things to get done that day (sometimes schedules, sometimes not).

So it might look like this:

0600 Wake

0630 Run and cool down

0800 Walk dog

0815 Eat breakfast

0845 Shower

0945 Leave for Physical Therapy

Write

Call Jane

Blog post

I’m training for a half marathon, so on running days I go early while it’s still cool outside. (BTW, exercise is great stress relief!) Every other day of the week I start with writing, so it’s the first thing I accomplish, and work out later.

When everything is scheduled for its own time, I can relax and focus, instead of worrying about whether I should be doing something else.

And, yes. Some days I totally fail. If I don’t go to bed early enough, none of this works, so that’s HUGE for me right now. My biggest struggle. But having a plan (and a specific reason to get up) makes it easier.

I have high expectations for myself overall, which I think is important, but I’m learning to keep them real in my day-to-day plan.

How about you? What stresses you out, and how are you handling it (or not)?

Luck or passion?

follow your passion sign

 

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. ~ Seneca

When we follow our passion, we’re much more likely to meet the luck that makes something really cool happen. ~ Gwen Hernandez, on the Behind the Prose podcast

In 2010, as a newbie writer looking for blog content, I started writing about my favorite software: Scrivener. (Did anyone doubt? 😉 )

It began with how-to posts mainly for my writer friends, who were the only people following me back then. Initially, I had no expectations other than picking up a few new blog followers and plumping up my website’s content.

But a lot more people than I expected were interested in what I had to say. (Awesome David at L&L promoting my posts helped immensely!)

In 2011, I started teaching online courses. By 2012 I had signed a contract to write Scrivener For Dummies. Soon thereafter, I was taking on private training clients and giving in-person workshops for writing groups and conferences. Not bad for a side interest spurred by my other passion: writing romantic suspense.

Getting the book deal was lucky—a crazy confluence of events that you can read about here—but I wouldn’t even have appeared on my publisher’s radar if I hadn’t continued to learn about Scrivener and grow my platform through new posts and online classes.

I would not have been positioned for that luck to strike.

The point of this post is not to point out my good fortune at finding work I love—though I’m pretty damn happy about it—but rather to illustrate an idea.

When you follow your passion, cool things happen.

That’s a recurring theme I’ve noticed in interviews with people who have changed their lives by listening to the little voice inside their head begging them to spread the joy of fitness, take up knitting, become a farmer, or whatever.

Most of them did not set out to start a business or change career paths. They sort of fell into it. Their enthusiasm for the work of their heart put them in the right place, with the right skill set or knowledge, to take advantage when an opportunity appeared.

All they had to do was step through the open door.

Do you spend time on at least one thing that you’re passionate about? If not, why not? What’s one step you could take today to start yourself on that journey?

Really, there’s no downside to doing what you love. Even if you never move beyond part-timer, hobbyist, or fanatic, you’ll be a happier person for following your heart. And what’s cooler than that?

Letting go

LettingGoBalloonSometimes, we have to let go of our expectations. Of life, of others, and of ourselves.

Okay, well, we don’t have to, but we’ll probably be really unhappy…

I got a good reminder of this last week when I had a couple of trusted writer friends read my upcoming book. While they had good things to say, they also made some valid points about things that need to be fixed.

What? Now? But, but…this book is supposed to come out on May 13th. I already had it edited, got the cover designed, had the proofreader scheduled, and…well, everything.

But what’s more important, speed or quality? For me, there’s no question. Quality trumps speed.

So I had to let go of my plan and adjust my expectations. The book needs more work, simple as that.

I’m incredibly thankful to my (honest) friends for bringing the story’s issues to my attention. (Funny how you sometimes can’t see these things until someone points them out to you, and then you think, “Duh.”) I’d rather have it be my friends/beta readers than my paying readers!

To those of you who were looking forward to reading Blind Justice in May, thank you, I love you, and I’m sorry. I hope when you finally read it, you’ll think it was worth a few more months’ wait. I sincerely believe the book will be much stronger.

And I’ve learned something about myself. I will continue to strive for better books at a faster pace, but I need to honor my process and be true to my characters and their stories. There are authors out there who can produce a book every two to three months. I applaud them!

At this point in time, I’m not one of them.

I’m trying to let go of unrealistic expectations—both in my personal and professional life—and focus on creating the best books I can. I know that little spot at the base of my neck that carries all of my tension will thank me. 😉

Has anything forced you to let go of your expectations? Please share!


 

Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Apprentice Eric Cutright [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Finishing the book

The_End_BookIn the last two calendar years I wrote 245,000 words of fiction without completing a single novel.

In fact, until Monday, I hadn’t written “The End”—actually I don’t write that anyway—on a fiction manuscript since I finished the first draft of Blind Fury in December 2011.

Which makes Monday’s finish of the first draft of Blind Justice kind of a big deal!

I was starting to wonder if I still had what it takes to write a book to its full conclusion. I’d done it before, plenty of times—in fact, Blind Fury was my fourth completed manuscript—but just not lately.

It wasn’t writer’s block, more like a lack of clear focus.

Scrivener For Dummies provided a distraction for a good part of 2011, but even after that I was all over the place. I started a follow-up to BF, but then worried that maybe I should write something that wasn’t linked, just in case BF didn’t sell.

Then I got to a certain point and felt like I wasn’t at a place in my writing where I could do that story justice, so I started something completely different.

I was halfway through that second something when I decided I was going to forge my own path and dive into self-publishing.

Instant focus.

The series is king, which meant it was time to return to the Blind Fury follow-up and drop the manuscript I’d put over 30K into. It’s amazing how knowing what you want, and what you need to do to get there, makes all the difference.

So, now I finally have that fifth manuscript under my belt, and a sixth one halfway done.

My advice? If you’ve never finished a book, pick a story, stick with it, and finish it. Don’t be distracted by the plot bunnies. Capture them somewhere—Evernote maybe?—and get back to work.

You don’t have to love the first draft—that’s what revisions and editors are for—you just have to get to the end. It’s a lot easier to write half a story than a whole one. Until you complete one, you’ll never know if you can.

And once you do, you’ll have the confidence that you can do it again.

Oh, and I’d recommend not waiting two years to make it happen. 😉

Image credit: By EWikist at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fail big

512px-Falling_surfer

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing. ~ Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln knew how to fail big. He also knew how to win.

The path to success in anything will always be riddled with potholes and treacherous drop-offs. Slipping and stumbling along the way at least means you’re on the road. It also means that you’re learning what not to do, so as you progress down the path you keep a sharper eye out for anything that could trip you up.

You learn the warning signs and you arm yourself with the tools you need to make it to the top.

But it’s not easy.

Roseberry_Topping_Race_2005_-_geograph.org.uk_-_106412

Very little worth having comes easy—if it does, I’d start looking for the scam or the Candid Camera crew—and when things are tough, we get tired. We start to doubt ourselves and our resolve and wonder why we’re putting ourselves through this punishment. Who wants to trip and fall and stumble all the time?

We start to wonder if the end goal is really worth it. Is it worth all of the time, energy, frustration, money, missed [insert whatever you have to give up here], late nights, early mornings, and pain?

Maybe.

Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now—two years, ten years, when you’re ninety—if you don’t stick with it. How will you feel if you give up on this dream?

If the answer is, “Thank God I didn’t waste any more time on that crazy idea.” Then go forth and be happy and do something else.

If your future self is more likely to curse you out for not sticking with it, to berate you for failing to believe in yourself, to pester one and all with your stories of regret for the dream you gave up, then go forth and be happy knowing that you’re doing what you’re meant to do.

Setbacks will happen. Pain will happen. Failures. Will. Happen.

Skateboard-cast-broken_leg-690475-l

But you will—most likely, assuming we’re not talking about death-defying acts of acrobatics and the like—survive. And you will come out on the other side stronger and wiser and closer than ever to your goal.

I thought that today, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it might be relevant and helpful to remind you of the many failures and setbacks of the famous U.S. president.

[Click here for a list.]

Lincoln was met with disaster and defeat repeatedly. Interestingly, these often came just before success.

I think the only difference between him and other people who face setbacks is that he kept moving forward toward his goal, in spite of the obstacles. He knew what he wanted and he kept going after it like a K-9 on the scent. Unwavering, single-minded, focused. (Or so I’ve read. It’s not like I knew the guy.)

Even if it’s all a myth, let’s use it as a model, shall we?

Go forth and fail madly and happily on your way to your dream.

I dare you.

Image credits: (1) Brocken Inaglory [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

(2) Mick Garratt [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

(3) By Sister72 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/sis/514293861/) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons