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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.

Writing together makes us better

better together text

Anyone else a little busy right now? The only way I’ve been getting any writing done lately is to meet my friend Bria Quinlan at the library three days a week to write for several hours. Since we started, I’ve averaged more words per week than I have all year (even during NaNoWriMo).

The concept is simple, but the result has been epic. Writing at home always sounds great, and I can do it, but the minute I get stuck in a scene, it’s far too easy to get distracted by food, laundry, a dirty counter, my dog, my bed, business stuff, errands, email… At the library, I know I’m there for one reason only: to write. No excuses. And there are very few distractions (aside from the books on every wall).

We had to lay some ground rules—based heavily on the “Writers Camp” formed by Roxanne St. Claire, Kristen Painter, Leigh Duncan, and Elle Saint James—to make sure we don’t just chat the whole time. For example, we get 15 minutes at the start of the day to catch up with each other. We set a goal for the morning (e.g. word count, pages revised), and no one gets lunch until we both reach our goals. How’s that for motivation?

We take 45 minutes for lunch during which we can eat, talk, check social media or email, and then get back to work. Appointments are scheduled for other days of the week. This is Work Time. Writing is our job, and this is our version of an office with a boss.

In the afternoon, we each try to meet our goal for the day before we wrap it up. Even if I miss my overall mark, I’ve been so much more productive that I have no complaints.

Not only am I getting in more words, but Storytime (as Bria dubbed it) is freeing me up to spend more time on the business tasks I’ve been putting off, without feeling guilty for not writing (as much) on those days.

I realize not everyone can do this during the day. I’m lucky to work from home full time. But the concept can be modified. Maybe it’s two hours at a coffee shop on Saturday and Sunday morning. Or a couple hours at the library several evenings a week. Or take your laptop to work and find a spot to write during your lunch hour (the conference room?).

Honestly, though, this works best with a partner. Why? Accountability is a big part of it. (Having someone to watch your computer on a bathroom break is an added bonus.) If I’m not meeting Bria, it’s easy to skip writing to tackle all of the other things on my to-do list. If I haven’t reached my goal by noon, I can’t just give in, I have to keep writing until I make my morning word count. It often comes easier than I expect when I force myself through the block.

The key—at least for me—is to get away from the distractions and to set up an unassailable period of time where my brain knows that writing is the only option. Some people can do this at home. (I envy you!) After almost a year of fighting with myself, I’ve learned that I need an alternative.

Do you struggle with distractions when you want to be writing (or working on something else important to you)? Have you found a way to deal with it? Please share!

NaNoWriteMore with Scrivener

2013-Participant-Square-ButtonAnyone else gearing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? You know, the craziness of attempting to write 50,000 words in 30 days?

I’ve been playing with some early scenes in my next manuscript to help me flesh out the story and get to know the characters better, and now I’m trying to hammer out more of the plot details.

Although I consider myself a pantser, I’m working on having the major turning points and motivations figured out before I get too far into a story these days. Otherwise, I end up doing a lot of backtracking. Plus, having an outline–even a bad or spotty one–helps a lot during NaNo when you don’t have time to spend figuring out what comes next.

Unless, of course, you work like that. I can, but it’s not pretty.

It’s now a tradition for me to remind you of the fabulous ways in which Scrivener can make NaNoWriMo easier. Here are some of my tips for using it to your best advantage in November.

The key? Don’t stop writing for anything, especially not to edit or do research.

Time-delay the Idea Fairy

Create a couple of text documents somewhere outside of the Draft/Manuscript folder before you start.

1) A document to jot down concepts that come to you for future scenes. When an idea hits, you can make a note of it and get back to work. I call mine “Ideas”. Clever, yes?

2) A change log to keep track of changes you want to make to existing scenes. Don’t go back and make the revisions, just note them in the log and keep writing as if you already did. In another dazzling display of brilliance, mine is named “Change Log”.

Just Keep Writing

Next time you get stuck trying to figure out the witty dialog in a scene, the ideal name for your fictional corporation, or the mating rituals of the Asian long-horned beetle, create an annotation (Format—>Inline Annotation) or a comment (Format—>Comment) to make a note of it and keep writing.

Later you can go back and use Edit—>Find—>Find By Formatting to search for annotations and comments when you’re ready to work on them. AFTER you hit 50K.

Block Distractions

Free yourself from distractions with Full Screen Composition mode. Called Full Screen in Windows and Composition mode on the Mac (to avoid confusion with Mac’s full screen option), this feature blocks out everything but your blank page so you can just write.

Consider adding a custom background color or image to keep you in the right frame of mind.

Add a pair of headphones or earbuds—with or without music—and you’re ready to rock.

Pre-Plot, If You Prefer

If you’re a plotter, consider creating your scene documents beforehand either in the Binder or the Corkboard. If you like to plot using index cards, then select the Draft/Manuscript folder, make sure you’re in Corkboard view (View—>Corkboard if you’re not), then click the circular green Add button on the toolbar to create a new card. Title it, add a brief synopsis of the scene and repeat.

Once you have all of your scene documents created it’s merely a matter of filling them with words starting November 1.

Keep Important Info at Hand

You don’t want to spend your precious writing time searching for a key piece of information. Before November rolls around, import into your project any research documents, images, or references you must have in order to write. Select the desired folder (outside of the Draft/Manuscript folder) and go to File—>Import. For web pages, you might want to use References instead.

Track Your Progress

Your goal is 50,000 words, and Scrivener makes it easy to track your progress with project targets. Go to Project—>Show Project Targets (Mac) or Project–>Project Targets (Windows).

You can set a target for the entire manuscript, as well as one for each writing session. The session target is nice because it lets you track your word count either over the course of a whole day, or in smaller writing “sprints”.

One thing to keep in mind with word count is that the NaNoWriMo site might calculate word count slightly differently than Scrivener. For example, Scrivener counts a hyphenated word as two, while the NaNo counter looks for spaces to identify each new word and only counts hyphenated words as one. So, you might want to shoot a little beyond the 50K finish line just to be on the safe side.

Download the NaNoWriMo Template or Trial Version

Current Scrivener users can download a special NaNoWriMo template that comes loaded with predefined project statistics and compile settings.

For those who are new to Scrivener, Most Wonderful Keith and his crew at Literature & Latte have put together a NaNo version of the Scrivener free trial that gives you extra time to play with the program and includes the template I mentioned above. If you decide you love Scrivener, wait for the NaNoWriMo discount at the end of November before you buy.

Remember the Point

Don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is intended to be fun. It’s supposed to be a challenge that forces you to re-evaluate what you’re capable of. 4000-word writing days? You betcha. Writing for three, four, or eight hours in one day? I know you can do it.

And in the end, even if you don’t reach 50K, you’re still a lot further ahead than you were on November 1st. That makes you a winner no matter what.

Good luck!

Need more help? Sign up for an online class, read more Scrivener articles, or schedule a private training session. If you don't already have it, you can download Scrivener here.

Don’t fatigue your discipline muscle

WeightLifterI read somewhere recently that discipline is like a muscle. Not only that it gets stronger as you exercise it, but that it fatigues over the course of the day. Every time you call upon your self-control to make the right food choice or push through to the end of a mind-numbing task, your discipline muscle weakens.

With all the decisions we face daily, it’s no wonder that candy bar looks so good a few hours after lunch, or that our motivation to work out has waned by the time we clock out.

My discipline wears out just as quickly as anyone’s, but I’ve found a few things that help.

Timing. If going for a walk after work just isn’t happening, find another time that’ll be easier to stick to. Can you fit it in before your morning shower? On your lunch break?

My problem is ensuring I get my creative time. I work best before nine in the morning and after nine at night. Knowing that helps me make better choices about when to write, when to check email, and when to work out.

Routine. When you make something a habit, there’s no decision to make, no willpower required. It’s just part of your daily routine and you don’t even think about it.

It’s easier to add a new habit to your life if you can replace an old—preferably undesirable—one. Maybe instead of going out to lunch, you can bring your own. It’ll save you money, be better for your waistline, and leave you extra time for that walk.

According to time management guru Brian Tracy, it takes 21 days to form a habit. Just remember to work on only one new habit at a time, otherwise that old discipline muscle will be exhausted before noon!

Schedule. Why are we more worried about letting down other people than ourselves? Schedule your most important items on a calendar and treat them like any can’t-miss appointment. Writing time, workouts, family time, relaxation. Whatever your priority, put it down in ink (or pixels). You’re worth it.

If that’s not enough to make it happen, find a friend to schedule the activity with. We know you won’t let her down.

Remove temptation. Can’t resist the vending machine at work? Leave your cash at home and bring a snack. If the ice cream in your freezer calls to you every night before bed, do your grocery shopping early in the day (when your discipline is still strong) and don’t buy the ice cream!

I often struggle to set aside a good book even when I have other things I must get done. If I have a busy day or week coming up, I won’t even crack open a new read. Or if I'm desperate for some reading time (yes, it's an addiction), I’ll choose a short story or novella that I can start and finish during my lunch break or workout.

And lest you think I have this all figured out, I don’t. My discipline muscle still gives out and I skip the run, eat the candy, and get immersed in a book for half a day.

Sleep helps. Schedules help. Habits help.

And at the end of the day, I just have to forgive myself and keep trying to be better than I was the day before.

Photo credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #497570 / Vitaliy Saveliev / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Read it later

Pocket reading app

Pocket reading app

Years ago, I spent a lot of time commuting and listening to motivational and time management gurus (on cassette tape!). I remember Brian Tracy talking about how to fit in all the reading a successful businessperson must do. One of his tips was to go through your magazines, look at the table of contents, tear out the articles you wanted to read, and then get rid of the magazine (please recycle).

The next step was to put all the articles into a file, and carry it with you everywhere so you could read any time you had a few minutes to kill.

Nowadays, most of the articles I’m tempted by are online, but there are several applications that allow you to take Mr. Tracy’s time-saving approach to reading what has been dubbed “time-shifted content”.  Think of it like recording your favorite TV show on your DVR for later viewing, but for reading material.

Instapaper reading app

Instapaper reading app

Smartphone apps like Pocket and Instapaper let you mark an article or blog post to save, then make that page accessible from your computer, tablet, or smart phone.

Now, instead of wasting precious writing time reading blog posts like this one, you can read them while waiting at the doctor’s office, riding the Metro to work, or sitting in the kiss-and-ride pick up line after school.

If you love the article and want to keep the information, send it to Evernote. Otherwise, delete it and move on to the next article. The apps let you organize the articles by folder or tag, and are compatible with other applications like Evernote, Flipboard, Twitter, Zite News Reader, and more.

Even better, sites like Longform reformat long articles from magazines and newspapers for easier reading on these “time-shifted content” apps.

I’m pretty sure Brian Tracy would approve.

{UPDATED 9 July 2018 to remove now-defunct Readability app}