Almost All Systems Are GO…Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part series on the systems I have put or am attempting to put into place in pursuit of the goal to MAKE MY LIFE MORE ABOUT WRITING. Part 1 dealt with Inspiration and Energy. Part 2, below, is all about how I manage my time. Enjoy!

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Time Management for Easily Distracted Creatives

I am not a natural at time management. In fact, I’m naturally pretty horrible at it. I get off track really easily, and have a bit of a reputation for spacing things like bill paying and clipping my own toenails. So a solid system for managing my time is a necessity for me.

The key here is redundancy. One system alone is not enough. I need several chances each day to keep myself on task and to keep tabs on what I’ve accomplished, or what I still have left to do. I’ve come up with five ways of doing this, and each of them motivates me in a different way, which is nice because I get bored easily.

Daily/Weekly Planner

The daily planner is pretty much a no-brainer. Everyone has one, either in analog or digital form; the key is to actually USE IT. I tried planning stuff on my iPhone for a year, using Google Calendars and some different apps, but I never found anything that really worked for me. For one thing, it is easier for me to write short memos by hand than to finger-tap on a touch screen. For another, I found that a good sized planner has a lot more space–I can see whole weeks at a time, with all the pertinent things written down instead of having to tap through to another screen or do that awkward thumb-and-forefinger expandy motion to embiggen the text. Plus, there is something super satisfying about physically crossing a to-do item off of my list.

My planner is spiral bound, about 4×7″, with a brightly colored cover that makes me happy when I look at it. It is divided into weekly sections, and each day of the week has a good ten lines or so to write all the things down on. There is a monthly view at the beginning of each month, and there are a lot of extra pages for note-taking and stuff. At the beginning of each week (usually on Sunday), I go through and write down all the tasks I intend to complete for the week, trying to space them out so that no one day is too hectic.

This is not the first time I’ve had a planner, but it’s the first time I’ve figured out the most optimal way to use it and really stuck with it. Of course, the planner space isn’t limited to just creative projects. My other day-to-day tasks go in there, too. Like the work I do for my virtual assistance clients, homeschool lessons with my daughter, and errands I need to run. When planning my week, I don’t slate out my schedule hour by hour, but I do try to weigh out how long things are going to take, and try to allow myself enough time each day to get some creative work done.

Habitica

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If there’s a pithy, but slightly chastising adage to express a universal truth, chances are Ben Franklin invented it.

So there is this RPG thingy called Habitica that helps you set goals, form habits, and motivate yourself to accomplish stuff. This game has been a wonderful help for me in keeping track of things I want to do on a daily basis, that would take up too much room if I wrote them down in the planner, as well as setting to-dos and projects that have multiple components that need checking off over time.

The game rewards you for getting things done, whether it’s flossing your teeth, sticking to your daily exercise regimen, or completing your novel. You get an avatar, and as you move up in levels, you earn points that can be used to buy your avatar new gear. Every once in awhile, you’ll get an egg drop. Eggs can be combined with potions to hatch pets, which, when fed, grow into mounts. I’m totally geeking out here. Please forgive me, but I love Habitica! Plus, if you get friends and family to join, you can do quests with them. Quests are challenges that make the whole team accountable to each other for staying on task. If one member skips their dailies, for instance, the whole team suffers. But if everyone stays on track until the quest ends, they all get rewarded with treasure and whatnot.

Days For Certain Things

I’ve designated certain days of the week for certain tasks, especially for things that I will often forget to do, or things that NEED TO BE DONE weekly, no matter what.

For instance, Saturday is “working on the property day”. I take two hours to do some kind of cleaning-up or fixing-up project outside. If the weather’s not good, I find an indoor project to work on. What does this have to do with making my life more about writing? Well, this is the kind of thing that I will forget to do or put off for months, and the fact that it’s not getting done will distract me from everything, including my creative projects. So it’s all about limiting distractions.

On Sundays, I do laundry. I used to do laundry whenever I happened to think of it throughout the week. But I never seemed to get through the laundry pile, and it was taking time away from other stuff I would rather have been doing. So now, I do all my laundry on one particular day of the week. While the washer and dryer are running, I work on writing or revision. Two birds with one stone. I haven’t scheduled toenail clipping yet, but it might not be a bad idea.

The Major Hurdle: Sleep Schedules

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Without my systems, this is me every day at noon.

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, since I’m, you know, a grown-up person with offspring of my own, and like, things that I do to make money and stuff. But for most of my adult life, I’ve generally slept in pretty late.

“Oh, that’s no big deal,” you might be thinking. “I often let myself sleep in til 9. Sometimes even 10.” Um. No, it was worse than that. On the average day, I used to get up around noon. My whole family did. My husband works late, I’m a night owl, and we homeschool our daughter, so we all kind of got into this pattern of going to bed in the wee hours of the morning and not rising until noon. I consider getting up at ten “early rising”. Serious. And, okay, I guess it worked out alright most of the time. Homeschool gets done. Client work gets done. Household chores get done. Bills get paid, etc. But what really nagged at me is the feeling that I could be doing MORE if I were getting up at normal-people time. It didn’t quite make sense logically, because either way you sliced it, I was getting the same number of sleeping and waking hours each day. But I had started to notice that, on the precious few occasions when I did get up early (early-early, not ten o’clock early), I FELT more productive and motivated to do stuff. So I started getting up earlier.

Going from late-riser to early-riser is not an easy change to make. Trust me. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to do it before, and failed. So this time, I decided to go with a nice, slow, very gradual transition. For a week, I set my alarm clock for 11:30. The next week, 11:00, the next week, 10:30, and so on. Of course, the other half of waking up earlier is going to sleep earlier. My secret is to listen to audiobooks in bed. Knocks me right out.

So here’s my progress report on early rising: Currently, I’m stopped at ten o’clock for a few weeks because I couldn’t seem to wake up earlier than that. It must be a psychological thing, but if my alarm clock goes off at any time before ten, I’ll hit the snooze button in my sleep. But, even getting up at ten, I am getting clear and definite boosts to my productivity, especially in the writing realm. I may need to try transitioning by smaller increments of earlier-ness, now that I’m legitimately waking up in the actual morning. I could try going back fifteen minutes each week.  My goal is to wake up no later than 9:00 each morning, and it WILL happen. From there, I might even venture further into the mysterious morning realm. Who knows what treasures await me there?

Self-Imposed Deadlines

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This is how I used to deal with deadlines, before I started my own business three years ago. Now I need to apply what I’ve learned about keeping deadlines for clients to my own creative projects.

I am motivated by deadlines. I can’t stand the guilty feeling of failing to deliver on promises I’ve made to clients or friends in a timely manner. Since I know this about myself, I decided to try and use it to my advantage in the creative department. I’ve begun assigning self-imposed deadlines for creative projects.

Sometimes the deadline will be a project completion deadline, like “I will complete the first draft of this story by the end of next week.” I write down the deadline in my planner and add it as a to-do in Habitica. Then I try to space out the work in such a way that I can accomplish the task within the stated time period, without pulling an all-nighter on the last day.

Other times I’ll give myself what I like to refer to as “homework assignments”. These are small tasks that are designed to help me grow and evolve as a writer. For instance, I’ll re-read a favorite short story to analyze the plot or character arcs. Or I’ll assign myself a writing prompt–nothing major, just a few paragraphs utilizing a particular element of fiction for practice. I usually think up these homework assignments in the morning, after my regular writing session, and I’ll give myself between one and three days to complete it, depending on how involved and time-consuming I think it will be.

Both of these methods have proven useful to a certain extent, but I’m not completely sure yet whether this particular system is going to stand the test of continual application. Somehow the promises I make to myself don’t carry quite as much weight as the promises I make to clients and loved ones. So on good days, when everything is going well and nothing unexpected comes up to distract me, I do pretty well at following through, but on more difficult days, these self-imposed deadlines tend to be the first thing I put off until tomorrow. Three or four difficult days in a row, and the deadline is all but forgotten.

What I really need, I think, is more ACTUAL deadlines. Or better discipline. Hmm. This systems thing is a never ending uphill trek, it seems. But maybe that’s just how it looks from halfway up the mountain. Onward and upward!

 

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Almost All Systems Are GO… Part 1

***Note: When I finished this blog post, it was really loooooooong. So I’m splitting it up into several parts. This first part gives a brief introduction on the idea behind the series, and delves into the first of my productivity systems, which deals with inspiration and energy. Check back soon for more installments!***

Two months ago, on New Year’s Eve, I published a post about my 2016 Writing Plan and all of the creative goals I hope to achieve this year. Three weeks later I began to write this blog post, got over half of it written, got distracted, and didn’t come back to it until tonight. As you can see, my 2016 Writing Plan is hitting the requisite slumps and blocks. But good news! Despite random periods of slumpishness, I am well on my way to doing all the things! (I even was offered beard help.) I’m feeling productive. The words are flowing. The plots are coalescing. The ideas are being seized upon before they flit away. But none of it would be so, were it not for my SYSTEMS. As promised, I am writing this post to fill you in on the details of the 2016 Writing Plan’s logistics and behind the scenes operations.

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I started implementing my systems about five months ago, little by little. Some of them are still in the beta testing phase, and they are all still subject to refinement, but I think I have enough data to illustrate how they work.

The purpose of each of my systems is to get me to do four things:

  1. Stay inspired and energized on my creative projects.
  2. Manage my time, including work time, family time, down time and creative time, in such a way that I don’t end up TOTALLY SLACKING OFF.
  3. Strike a balance for my writing between the spine-tingling creative rush and the tick-tock production schedule.
  4. Most importantly, MAKE MY LIFE MORE ABOUT WRITING. Otherwise known as Immersion.

So, what are these brilliant systems, you ask? I will tell you.

Inspiration and Energy

Here’s a scenario that has happened to me about a hundred too many times. I’m working on this awesome project–a short story or a novel or an article or a blog post, whatever–and I’m just chugging along, feeling super inspired, writing 5,000 words in one sitting, not being able to stop thinking about the project for days on end…and then, Something Happens. It might be a family emergency, or the sudden realization that I am behind on other things, or it might be that I suddenly get stuck in the plot of what I’m writing. In the past, I’ve responded to this sort of interruption by stopping. I can’t say how many times I’ve told myself, “I’ll just take a short break for a day or two, and then get right back to it”, but let’s just say if I had a dime for each one, I’d probably be a hundredaire.

So last year when I was evaluating the roadblocks on my path to being a better and more prolific writer, I identified this one as “easily losing inspiration/energy.” To avoid this roadblock, I needed a system for maintaining inspiration and energy. Here’s what I came up with.

  • Write every day. My current daily word count goal is 800 words of fresh drafting or one scene of revision, which is a good goal (challenging but reachable) for where I’m at in my life right now. But if my schedule tightens up, I’m not scared to reduce that goal to whatever I can tap out in ten minutes. Likewise, if ever there’s a lull in Things To Do, I can ramp up the daily wordcount to fill up all that free time.
  • Have multiple projects going at once. A novel and a short story is working well for me at the moment. This way, if I run into a quagmire in the novel that I’m not sure how to resolve, instead of losing interest and letting my energy wane on the project, I switch over to the short story for a few days. When I do this, I am refusing to let my ideas stop steeping (which is essential to working out plot problems), or my writing muscles atrophy. I’m keeping up with my daily writing, and while I get all stoked on project B, project A is still simmering in the back of my mind, hopefully working out its own kinks. This method has already helped me immensely.
  • Writerly fellowship and peer pressure. My writer friends keep me on track. I’m part of two writing groups, one virtual and one local. My Odyssey class meets weekly on Google Chat to brainstorm and commiserate, and we have a running competition for who can get the most story rejections. We also have a couple of in-person reunion events planned for 2016, because we love each other with a deep and passionate love that makes your marriage look like a last ditch prom date. I’m also part of a group that convenes in meat space near where I live, once a week to critique each other’s stories. After the critiquing, we gather in a circle to type at a feverish pace for about an hour. It’s surprising how effective peer pressure can be for your word count. I’m a busy person outside of writing, so I don’t make it to every meeting of either of these groups, but I try to do at least one of them each week, if not both. It really, really helps. These people understand me, and they encourage and inspire me in ways that no one else really can.
  • Write at a particular time each day. To be honest, I haven’t gotten this one down yet. The idea is that if you sit down to write at the same time each day, you will eventually have your brain trained to be in creative mode at that time. My life is so wacky, however, that it’s really difficult to carve out a specific block of time for anything that can be repeated daily. But I’m hoping that as I get my other activities and responsibilities shuffled into something approaching an orderly schedule, a consistent time for writing will emerge. UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have upgraded to a morning routine, and have been spending at least one hour on writing projects first thing after breakfast each day. The routine is working really well for me, and I’m getting my writing done each day when my mind is at its freshest and most creative!

So, that’s it for inspiration and energy. Look out for future installments of this series, which I will post as I finish revising them.

 

2016 Writing Productivity Plan

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I’ve never been a big fan of New Years’ resolutions. It has always seemed to me that if you really want to accomplish or change something in your life, there’s no good excuse to wait until January 1st to begin. I think the reason why people so often give up on their resolutions is because they don’t really want that change badly enough. They’re just making resolutions because, hey, that’s what you do on New Years, right? The resolutions are for changes that may very well be beneficial to implement, but the feeling or motivation behind them is too vague or wishy-washy to carry them through.

Speaking of changes, I decided in March of 2015 that I wanted to make a few. They’re all interrelated, but they all kind of fall under the umbrella of “Be more productive and do more with my life so that I don’t crumble under the weight of so many regrets that I can’t dig myself out of them.” Yeah. It was like that.

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Look, I’m not an expert on productivity. Far from it. I remember the first time I ever completed a major creative project, rather than abandoning it partway through when I got distracted by a new idea. It was four years ago. I’m thirty-three, and I only figured out how to complete a project four years ago. Also, I have a tendency to be super spacey about schedules, to-dos, and commitments, and I am NOT an early riser. My mental image of a Very Productive Person looks like this: gets up at 6:30, exercises for thirty minutes, makes a healthy breakfast and eats it sitting down, does profitable work for several hours without skipping lunch, completes all errands and housework in a timely manner, and is committed to devoting a certain amount of time each day to creative projects. Also never forgets to pay the phone bill. None of those qualities describe me. Or at least, some of them are only just beginning to. (There will be a blog post on how I’ve managed to up my general productivity over the past few months. Stay tuned.)

What I’m really shooting for here is to make my life more about doing something with my creative drive. More specifically, I want to write more and to do more with my writing. (And when I say writing, I mean the creatively fulfilling kind–mainly fiction. I clarify because I actually do write a lot, but it’s mostly blog posts for my business clients, and while they pay the bills, blog posts about “How to Find the Right Futon Cover” or “Ten Things You’re Probably Forgetting to Clean” aren’t really creatively fulfilling at all.) The thing I’ve realized is, there’s not much stopping me. There never has been. It’s just that I’ve always been too easily distracted or overwhelmed by ADULT STUFF that I ignore my passion. And if I ignore my passion, it will never take me anywhere.

So, in lieu of resolutions, I’ve decided to make a 2016 PRODUCTIVITY PLAN. Or, as I like to think of it: Starr’s Mission to Level Up (And Be More Awesome Than Last Year). It’s basically like what businesses do at the beginning of a fiscal year. A plan for the year is better, and more likely to succeed, than a list of resolutions. For one thing, a plan requires more thought and energy, getting you more pumped up and motivated. It also requires you to figure out HOW you’re going to make the changes you want to make. And, of course, it can serve as sort of a road map that you can refer to going forward to make sure you’re on track. Best of all, you don’t have to wait until New Year’s to implement your annual productivity plan. Any day of the year will do. Just check back with your plan periodically and make a new one around the same day next year.

I’ve been working over the past few months on putting in place systems that will help me progress with my goals, and with this blog post, I’m officially setting my intentions for 2016. (More about the systems in that upcoming blog post I mentioned.) I figure that posting this plan in a public place will have the added benefit of making me feel more accountable for actually doing it.

In developing my 2016 Productivity Plan, I took stock of the things I accomplished this year, and then considered whether I wanted to do more of them next year, and how much more.

To give you an idea…

Things I Accomplished in 2015:

  • 1 First Draft of a Novel Halfway Written (I started it during NaNoWriMo and am still plugging away at it. The first draft should be finished in January or February, 2016.)
  • Won NaNoWriMo for the Second Year Running (Yay!)
  • 6 Short Stories Written (This is better than any previous year, but I’d like to do more.)
  • 12 Posts Written for My Own Blog (Ideally, I’d like to do at least one blog post a week, but I’m trying to set reachable goals here, so I’ll settle for somewhere in the middle. Also, I don’t like how the 12 posts were spread out over the year. When I look at my blog stats, there’s a big gap in the middle of the year where I didn’t publish anything for four or five months.)
  • ~50 Posts Written for Clients’ Blogs (This will probably be about the same in 2016.)
  • 78 Critiques of Other Writers’ Stories (This is freaking AMAZING, and I entertain no delusions that I will match it next year, as most of these were written during my attendance at Odyssey Writing Workshop, where I had to write two to three critiques a day for six weeks. I don’t think I will come close to doing this many critiques again, but I do want to make time for critiquing other writers’ work, for two reasons. One, it is part of my ongoing education in What Makes A Good Story; and two, I will probably need critiques of my own work, so of course I will want to reciprocate.)
  • Estimated 95,000 Total Words of Fiction Written (This might sound like a lot, until you realize that over half of these were written in the month of November, during NaNoWriMo. If I can do 50,000 words in one month of mad activity, then I can certainly get in 20,000 in a regular month, don’t you think?)
  • Estimated 15,000 Total Words Revised (This is sloppy. Just sloppy. I have a pile of short stories sitting on my desk that need revising.)
  • 3 Months of Writing Statistics Recorded Daily (I began recording my daily writing stats on October first, and have fully implemented the habit now. This is awesome. I love being able to watch my words pile up on the spreadsheet. And I only missed 15 days of writing in three months. Which, for me, is very, very good. But I want to do better.)
  • 19 Short Story Submissions Made (Nowhere NEAR enough.)
  • 0 Novel Queries Sent (Which makes sense, because I haven’t got a completed novel…YET.)
  • 17 Books Read (4 science fiction, 4 fantasy, 4 writing guides, 2 literary fiction, 2 short story collections, 1 horror. You can see the titles here.)
  • 1 Con Attended (ReaderCon in Boston–it was a blast!)
  • 1 Workshops Attended (Odyssey Writing Workshop–life-changing! Should probably count as 52 workshops.)
  • 2 Science Fiction/Fantasy Magazines Subscribed To (Fantasy and Science Fiction Kindle edition, and Fireside Fiction. I love reading speculative short stories, and since I want magazines to continue making them available to me, I figured I should do my part to support my favorite ones. Next year, I’d like to support a couple more as well. I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford another subscription, but maybe a small donation here or there when I’m feeling flush.)
  • 0 Beard Progress (An epic beard makes you a better science fiction/fantasy author by giving you like eighty kazillion experience points. It is known.)

(In addition to my Writerly Pursuits, I also mom’d a bunch, did daily social media maintenance for several clients, narrated five audiobooks, ran a successfully funded IndieGoGo campaign, met a bunch of awesome new friends, and did some other stuff…)

Now, taking into account the above list of 2015 accomplishments, which, I have to say, I already feel rather good about, here are my goals for outdoing myself in 2016.

Things I Hope to Accomplish in 2016:

  • Revise 1 Novel (The one I’m currently writing, ideally.)
  • Write another Novel (In November, obviously.)
  • Write and Revise 10 Short Stories (Only four more than this year! I can totally do it!)
  • Write at Least 18 Blog Posts (On my OWN blog, of course.)
  • Write the Obligatory Number of Client Blog Posts (However many they’ll pay me to write.)
  • Write at Least 1 Salable Non-Fiction Article (NOT a blog post. Like a real article, for a magazine or something. Must be on a topic that actually interests me.)
  • Fiction Word Count Goal: 150,000 (This is quite a bit lower than I think I can do. Baby steps.)
  • Revise at Least 100,000 Words of Fiction (Yikes.)
  • 100 Short Story Submissions (Crazy, right? But I’m in this weird cultish blood pact with some of my writer friends. If I don’t submit 100 stories, I forfeit my soul or something. I don’t know, I haven’t read the fine print…)
  • 25 Queries (You know, once I get that novel up to scuff.)
  • Read 20 Books (As always, reading Harry Potter to my kid at before bed doesn’t count!)
  • Attend 1 Con (I’m going to WorldCon!!!)
  • Workshops? (I don’t know. We shall see if the opportunity presents itself. As always, I’m committed to continuing to deepen my knowledge of craft in other ways.)
  • Buy a Convincing Fake Beard

Think I can do it? I’m certainly going to give it my best shot. And I’ll keep you posted as the year progresses.

Do you have any resolutions this year? Or an ambitious Productivity Plan, like mine? Let me know in the comments. Maybe we can be motivation buddies!

A Time Travel Tale in Which I Attempt to Write a Poem in the Style of Robert Burns

Hot buttered banjo strings, Batman, it’s almost 2016! The year has whizzed by so fast, I think I have whiplash.

So that I can begin 2016 with a clean slate and a productive feeling, I’m spending the month of December in a mad dash to catch up on all of 2015’s projects in advance of the New Year. One of those projects is the Totally Fabricated Bios I owe to several contributors to my March IndieGoGo campaign, which was successfully funded, allowing me the opportunity to spend six weeks in New Hampshire for the Odyssey Writing Workshop.

So get comfortable and prepare yourself for a tale of complete and fantastic invention about my friend, Robert Lindsay Nathan, his time machine, and his exploits in history. Lovers of the poetry of Robert Burns will particularly enjoy this Totally Fabricated Bio.

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Robert Lindsay Nathan, Intrepid Time Traveler

Robert Lindsay Nathan and Time Travel in the Historical Record

Robert Lindsay Nathan is primarily known for his 1999 discovery of the principles of time travel, and his subsequent invention of the time machine in 2012. He was born September 24, 1952 in Sheffield Alabama, and soon grew to be a prolific collector of science fiction magazines. Thus it was that, inspired by the pulp stories of the day, young Robert began experimenting with the bending of the space-time continuum at the tender age of 7. Though he was not immediately successful, he never abandoned his dream of traveling through time, and when he achieved his invention, he wasted no time in setting off to explore history. Unfortunately, little else is known about Mr. Nathan, apart from the small hints and clues left to us in the historical record.

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It appears Nathan left Robert Burns with at least one memento from the future.

But some of these hints and clues are tantalizing, indeed. For instance, take this poem, written by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns, who received a visit from Mr. Nathan circa 1780 in his Dumfries home. The poem not only mentions Mr. Nathan by name, but also comments upon the appearance and function of Nathan’s time machine, to which Burns refers as “time’s auld horse cart”.

To a Man from Aft Me End

Wi’ gears aglow an’ wheels rotatin
Time’s auld horse cart stands awaitin
Sae stately grand an’ yet sae patient!
To tak thee in its draft
Dear Robert Lindsay Nathan
An’ return thee aft!

Wi’ nae horse, but needs na hae ane
Thy cart down paths of time be trav’lin!
Thou clamb wi’in its steely cabin
An’ in a hasty glimmer
Lang aft I lay auld, cauld an’ graven
Thou’s in the future, hae’n dinner!

But I thank ye for callin me friend
An’ shewin me a’ that lies round the bend
An’ for singin a sang of things unken’d
Forward tho’ I canna see
Now I’ve met a man from aft me end
And thou’rt curs’d, compar’d wi’ me!

Dozens of other bits of evidence of Nathan’s time travel lie strewn across the historical record, from a Paleolithic cave painting in Lascaux that clearly depicts Nathan standing next to his time machine; to a brief but perplexing Biblical reference in which he is accused of absconding the Battle of Jericho with the Ark of the Covenant; to an ancient Chinese text that lists him as trusted adviser to Zhu Yuanzhuang, first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. There are entire schools of historic research devoted to finding Robert Lindsay Nathan’s path through the timeline.

But, while new branches of history may have opened up due to Nathan’s discovery, the same can sadly not be said for science. Because Nathan left no notes, diagrams or plans behind when he ventured into the past, our modern scientists and inventors have no way of learning from his designs. Furthermore, he has not been seen or heard from since his disappearance in 2012, apart from the historical clues. And, if he has made it to the future, modernity has yet to learn of it.

My First Dictated Blog Post!

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It’s like I have this lady and her whole setup tucked in my pocket.

This is my first time dictating a blog post! Yay! A few weeks ago I read a book by Kevin J Anderson entitled Million Dollar Productivity for Authors. In it, Mr. Anderson details how he is able to write so many books every year: he dictates his rough drafts. Now, I’ve heard of people dictating their writing before, but I never thought it would be something that I could do. For some reason I so closely associate writing with typing that I have trouble even imagining the process of speaking words onto the page.

But when I stop and think about it, I realize that human beings are hardwired to use all these teeth and tongue muscles we have to tell stories. In fact, the process of reading and writing is completely unnatural to our brains. But telling stories around the campfire? We’ve been doing it for millennia. And we’ve only been writing for a few hundred years. And we’ve only been typing for a little over a century. And we’ve only been using word processors for the past 30 years, give or take. So… with that in mind, I’ve decided that I can train my brain to dictate stories.

There are several reasons why I think that dictating my fiction will benefit me:

  1. I’m less likely to get distracted by Facebook, email, and all of the very interesting things on the Internet.
  2. My hands will not get sore, and I will be able to better avoid repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. I can walk around the room while I am dictating, and thereby avoid getting a sore neck or cramps in my lower back as I do when I am writing at the computer.
  3. Even though I can type 70 words per minute, I can still speak faster than I can type. That’s even with the mistakes that the dictation program makes. For instance, I just said 70 words per minute, and the dictation program wrote “LXX words permanent.” But it was fairly easy to go back and correct that.
  4. With dictation, I can write my books and stories and blog posts and pretty much anything else while I am away from the computer. I can take a digital recorder or just my smart phone with me wherever I go, and speak into it, take it home, upload it into the dictation program, and have my rough draft ready to revise without ever having touched the keyboard. This means that I can go for a walk or hike and be writing my novel at the same time. I can write my novel while I’m driving (not in heavy traffic.) I can write a blog post while I am washing dishes, waiting for my daughter to get her shoes on, or while cooking dinner.
  5. I believe that dictating will go along way towards silencing my internal editor while I am making my rough draft.
  6. It’s also a good way to add redundancy to my writing career. If I ever break my hand, gods forfend, I will be able to dictate and still meet deadlines on time. If on the other hand, I have a bout of laryngitis, I will still be able to type.

Therefore, I have determined that I must at least give it a shot. So, I decided to practice my dictation skills for 1 to 2 hours daily, for the course of the month. I figure it will probably take that long, if not longer, to become practiced enough to produce most of my drafts through dictation.

I started yesterday. With my smart phone in hand, I went to the lake near my moms house for a walk. For 30 minutes, I spoke into the microphone, trying not to pause. It was extremely uncomfortable. First of all, I just couldn’t think of what to say. I wasn’t trying to write a blog post or a story. I was just trying to get comfortable speaking into the microphone. So, I did stream of consciousness which is basically like blabbering, and it’s very uncomfortable to walk by people at the lake on the trail when you are blabbering to yourself into a smartphone. Nonetheless, I kept with it for the full 30 minutes. I talked about what I was seeing as I walked, I talked about my reasons for wanting to learn to dictate, I talked about a story that I had been writing and trying to figure out where my plot had gone wrong, and I even recited the lyrics to “Hotel California” by the Eagles. I don’t think I got anything useful out of that session.

Today was a bit better. I went hiking on a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway near my home. I dictated for a full two hours. For the first hour I did stream of consciousness again, and for the second hour I did brainstorming for the second half of the plot of the novel that I worked on in November for National Novel Writers Month.

I just tried to say “NaNoWriMo”, but the dictation program wrote “bananarama.”

Brainstorming by dictation felt really unnatural to me. I was using a lot of “ums” and “ahs”, and I felt like I was going really slowly. But at the end of the hour, I had a lot of material. I think that as I was trying to keep talking steadily without pausing for an hour, a lot of ideas were forced out of my head that would otherwise have been stifled by my internal editor, had I just been sitting at the keyboard.

I haven’t bought any dictation software yet. This is because the program that I would need for my computer is a bit expensive. Luckily if you have a PC, You can get a program like Dragon Naturally Speaking pretty cheaply. Last I checked on Amazon, it was about a $50 on sale. But Dragon Dictate for Mac? $200. Yeah, that’s more of a luxury item for me. In the meantime, I’m using the dictation software that comes prepackaged with Mac computers. I can’t upload my smartphone files into this program and have them transcribed automatically, but it’s good enough to get started.

So I decided that I should try to get fluent in dictation before I purchase software. I’m pretty committed to practicing for an hour at least, each day for the next month, now that Bananarama is over.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

My Second NaNoWriMo Win, YAY!!

I invite you all to join me in congratulating myself for winning NaNoWriMo for the second year in a row.

Here it is, all the proof you need that I spent all of November holed up in a dark corner of a coffee shop, alternately typing in a mad fury and mumbling to myself in a mad fury.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square

If you are one of the two people who follow this blog’s irregular postings, you may recall that after last year’s NaNo, I felt so self-satisfied at finishing my 50,000 words that I just decided to go right ahead and take a break for a couple of days. A couple of days that stretched on into a couple of weeks and then a couple of months. (If you’re not one of the two people who follow this blog, you can read all about it here.)

Well, I can assure you I will NOT be making that mistake again this year. I have 50,000 words of a first draft of a novel sitting on my laptop right now (with, yes, two backups, one on a jump drive and one on the cloud, just in case my computer gets sucked into a cyclone or something), but 50,000 words does not a novel make. At least, not a Starr novel. I estimate that I’m roughly halfway through the story at this point. So instead of giving myself a nice, well-deserved break, I’m going to continue locking myself in my room for three to five hours a day UNTIL THE DAMN THING IS DONE.

So don’t expect a Christmas card this year, guys.

You have been warned.

Early Writing Memories: The Rock That Would Not Be a Plant

In third grade we had writing journals. Each day Mrs. Coley would announce a topic and ask the class to write about it in our journals for fifteen minutes. At the end of the fifteen minutes, she would collect the journals for review and we’d get them back the next day with a check, a check plus or a check minus. Then she would ask a few of the check-plus recipients to read their entry aloud for the class. I pretty much always got check-plusses, and it was a point of pride for me. Even in third grade I loved to write, and to please people with my writing.

One day the topic was “If I lived in the ground, I would be a…”

I really liked this topic. I got right to work. I decided I’d like to be a rock. But not just any rock. A beautiful rose quartz with a name and dreams and aspirations and magical powers. I wrote furiously and filled up a page and a half in the allotted fifteen minutes.

The next day when Mrs. Coley handed the journals back, I opened mine to see the dreaded check-minus! I almost started crying right then and there. I put my head down on the desk and pretended to be very, very tired so no one would see my red face.

Mrs. Coley asked three of my classmates to read their entries. I listened closely, hoping for some indication of where I’d gone wrong. Turns out, all of the check-plus entries did have one thing in common: they were all about being PLANTS. Daffodils, rose bushes, oak trees and the like. Of course! The topic was “If I lived in the ground,” not “If I were an inanimate object in the ground”. Plus, we’d been studying the life cycles of plants that week, so it would only make sense for the journal topic to be a non-specific curricular comprehension trap. Geez. I felt like such a dunce.

But now that I’ve had twenty-eight years to think about it, I’m inclined to conclude that my journal entry was actually the brilliant one, and that those other kids were just stifling their creative impulses, doing their part to uphold the elementary school status quo. Because I mean, plants don’t live IN the ground. Not entirely. And sentient rocks with magic powers are totally awesome. So take that, Mrs. Coley!

IndieGoGo Update and a Totally Fabricated Bio

So remember that IndieGoGo campaign I blogged about earlier this month? The one where I was raising money to go to Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer? Yeah? Well, the campaign is almost, ALMOST at its end, and it’s been pretty darn successful thus far, thanks to a bunch of amazing, possibly geekier than average people out there in cyberspace who believe in me and my fiction.

As of this moment, there are four days left in the campaign and $2606 has been raised of the $3500 goal. It is officially ON. I am definitely, with all certitude and nary a doubt, making my way to Odyssey this summer. Can I just say how fluttery this makes me? Really, super, fluttery. Like a whipped concoction of eyelashes and heart murmurs and butterfly wings.

So… I am now in Perk Fulfillment Mode. That means that all those retro sci fi posters are fixing to ship out, the ebooks are about to be formatted, and the lucky recipients of character naming rights have been contacted for names. And today I have been working on the Totally Fabricated Bios. This is a perk where, for $100, I write the claimant a 500 word biographical sketch made entirely of bologna and smoke. The owner of the new bio can use it however he or she sees fit- like for social media profiles, resumes, etc. And I admit I’ve been cheating a little. These bios are so much fun that I can’t limit them to just 500 words. I wrapped this one up today, and it topped out at 860 even after revisions. With the subject’s permission, I am posting this first Totally Fabricated Bio on the blog to give you all a taste of what’s to come. If you’re interested, there are still 4 of these babies left on the campaign. So, without further ado, I give you…

This is Venus EnVie. She's my cousin, and she's a total badass.

This is Venus EnVie. She’s my cousin, and she’s a total badass.

The Implausible Adventures of Venus EnVie

Venus EnVie was born at dusk in the back of a wood paneled station wagon on the side of a dusty road in Oklahoma. She crawled at 2 months, took her first step at 6 months, could roller-skate like nobody’s business at 2 years, and taught herself to drive the station wagon at 7. From that point on, there was no stopping her. Maybe it was her fateful birth, or the gypsy blood in her veins. She had to keep moving.

On her tenth birthday, the station wagon broke down on the side of Rt. 66, forty miles outside of Flagstaff. She abandoned it, continuing her journey on skates, and became the first non-adult in the USA to roller skate cross-country. It was a strangely satisfying life- sleeping in old barns and abandoned warehouses, relying on the kindness of rollerskating enthusiasts for her meals, racing souped up Fords and Chevys for pocket money. Times oscillated from flush to rough and back again, but Venus persevered. Thrived. Flourished.

But after so many years out there on the road with only loneliness for company, Venus knew she needed a change, and it became her mission to find a likely traveling companion.

One cheerless Arkansas night, when the moon hung bright and close to the earth, Venus heard a sound that was full of longing and portent. It was something between a warble and a closed-mouth throat roar, and she knew she must investigate. Following the noise to its source, she found herself nose to chest feathers with the meanest, orneriest ostrich east of Texas: a 14 ft tall beast of a bird named Bernie. This was the one. A traveling companion of the highest quality. An alliance must be made. Bernie was not taken with her supplications at first, but after 7 hours of back and forth negotiations, Venus finally impressed him with her rollerskating prowess and he conceded to join her in her travels.

And so the two set out on their adventures. Years passed. Their friendship blossomed and the miles flew by in a cloud of downy feathers. By age 19, Venus had crisscrossed the North American continent on Bernie’s back.

But somewhere in the wilds of Alaska, the pair met their match in the form of a fierce and hungry polar bear who had wandered too far from his northerly home. Venus almost didn’t make it out alive, and Bernie fully didn’t. The bear wrangled the stately bird by his long, graceful neck and crunched. Venus, who sat straddled atop Bernie’s back at the time, managed to get two hands in the polar bear’s mouth and pried his jaws apart, slashing her arms to the shoulder in the process. But it was too late for poor Bernie. Needless to say, the polar bear was mad as spitfire about Venus’s meddling around in his mouth, and attempted to pursue her. He overcame her at the precipice of a deep, icy gorge, but in one swift (some might say godly) motion, Venus extracted the sharpest tooth in his mouth and stabbed him in the jugular with it. During the scuffle, her rollerskates tumbled down into the gorge and could not be recovered.

Venus cleaned her wounds with her own copious tears and bound them in moss and lichen. Then she walked, making her slow, plodding way through Canada and down into Montana, stopping only to eat scraps of the bear meat she’d salvaged from the battle. She mourned for forty days and nights over the loss of her best friend, and then she wondered if perhaps the Gods of the Road were telling her something. Was it time to settle down? She had a little money from performing feats of strength and courage at urban intersections with her trusty ostrich. Maybe it was time to put that to good use.

She wandered into a Greyhound station in Belgrade, Montana one morning along about 4:00 and bought a ticket on the next bus leaving.

About four days later, she found herself in the moist and flamboyant city of New Orleans. She walked along the muggy sidewalk, bitter and exhausted, until she spied a sign that said “ROLLER DEATH MATCH”, and inquired within. Five minutes later, she had a new pair of rollerskates. And a job.

The roller gladiators of New Orleans, Louisiana may have been accomplished warriors, but none of them had ever fought a polar bear with their bare hands and lived to tell the tale. With the fearsome bear’s tooth as her only weapon, Venus made quick work of them. The Roller Death Match eventually had to shut down due to an unexpected lack of contestants.

It was alright, though. She may have been the wildest, fiercest gypsy-blooded vagabond-warrior in Louisiana, but in her heart, Venus longed for peace and the feel of asphalt beneath her wheels. When the Roller Death Match closed its doors, Venus took one last look upon the city of New Orleans and skated off into the sunset. She still coasts up and down the dusty back roads of North America to this day, in no hurry at all.

I’m Going to ODYSSEY!!!!

Through Space!!!

Through Space!!!

A few days ago I got an email that is probably the most wonderful and exciting piece of communication I’ve received since the midwife told me I was pregnant with my now nine-year-old daughter.

It started like this: “Dear Leslie, Congratulations!  You have been accepted for early admission into Odyssey.” And I almost dropped my tea mug on the tile floor.

For those who don’t know, Odyssey Writing Workshop is an annual, six week, intensive, residential writing program for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers. One of the most highly regarded workshops in the world for writers of fantastical fiction, it is a BIG deal. To me, certainly. But also to the speculative fiction community as a whole. The workshop is facilitated by Jeanne Cavelos, a veteran editor with decades of experience in helping people to grow and improve as writers. All of the alumni accounts I’ve read are pretty much unanimous: Odyssey will be the most powerful experience of your writing career. It will kick your ass, melt you down and reshape you. Your assumptions will be challenged, your writing skill will be taken up about ten notches and you will emerge from the six weeks dazed and exhausted, but with half a lifetime of writing craft knowledge under your belt and some awesome new friends as well.

I still can’t believe I was actually accepted. It’s like I’ve been whisked away to some alternate dimension. The Dimension Where Starr Gets To Go To Odyssey.

When I applied, I treated it as an exercise in trudging along despite disappointment. I was sure it would be just another rejection letter to add to the pile I’ve received from numerous submissions to science fiction magazines. I don’t know how many people apply to Odyssey, but I do know that it’s one of only three workshops of its kind in the US and the only one taught by an editor, that it only accepts 16 students each year, and that a lot of really talented writers apply. I am incredibly honored and humbled to be included in that group.

So this puts me in the position of fundraising. Attendance will cost me around $4000, not including any missed income while I’m away, or the summer programs I will have to enroll my daughter in so that my husband will still be able to work while I’m gone. Luckily, there is this awesome thing called Crowdfunding! I’ve started an IndieGoGo campaign to help raise part of the money I’ll need for tuition, lodging and travel to and from the workshop.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what kinds of perks to offer, and I think I’ve come up with a few really sweet ones. Like audiobook narration services, “Totally Fabricated Bios”, and some of my vintage science fiction posters, for instance. And lots more. Check out the campaign, and even if you can’t or don’t want to contribute right now, please consider sharing it on your social media platform of choice. Or if you’re a blogger or podcaster, think about doing before and after Odyssey interviews with me. I really appreciate everyone’s help!!

On Completing NaNoWriMo Without Finishing the Novel

I did it. I completed the NaNoWriMo. I kept my butt in the chair three to five hours a day, every day, throughout the month of November and tippity-tapped away on my keyboard in hopes of producing an assemblage of words that somewhat resembled a novel. And I succeeded. Sort of. Well, I got this:

Impressive, right?

Impressive, right?

But that’s not all! I also completed 52,000 words of my novel’s first draft! I really surprised myself. I was ecstatic! The story was good. The characters were engaging. Everything was far better than I would have expected. But, I was not DONE. Turns out, probably because of the three points-of-view that I insisted upon having in my story, the first draft is probably going to end up being more like 70,000 or 80,000 words. So, while I was feeling (justifiably) accomplished and capable, it was really not time to celebrate yet.

Now, what I should have done after completing the NaNoWriMo challenge was just to keep on keepin’ on. I should have cranked it out until the first draft was finished. But I did not. Instead, I said to myself, “Well Starr, pat on the back. You did it! Now it’s time for a break!”

Hint for writers: DO NOT TAKE A BREAK. It seems like a great idea. Just a couple of days, and then you’ll get back to work. But those couple of days come and go, and pretty soon it’s almost Christmas, and your kid is making a Christmas list that includes impossible-to-obtain items like “a foot of snow”, and your Mom is trying to get you to decide between yeast rolls or hot cross buns for the family holiday dinner, and your dog chews up her dog bed leaving a shredded foam disaster zone in your living room. And you think, I might as well get through Christmas before I get back to work on the old novel. But then Christmas passes, along with all its extra demands and stresses and delights, and then comes a day when you think it might be nice to just sit down and tap out a few words on the novel. So you prepare a nice, hot cup of tea, clear off your desk, dust off your laptop and open up the document. You stare at the words on the page for about half an hour as the realization slowly dawns on you that you can’t remember where you were going with this! There are minor characters in here- with NAMES- who you have no recollection of creating. The main character is in the middle of doing something completely daft, and you can’t remember WHY you put him in that situation- or how it was supposed to turn out. Ultimately, you resolve to go back and read the entire 52,000 words- something you’re NEVER supposed to do in the middle of the first draft- to recover your grasp on this plot. Uggggh.

This was my first NaNo. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I got to meet several other writers in my area. I got a free pass to go to my favorite brewery two to three nights a week (because the environment- and, ok, the beer- got the words flowing for me), and I wrote 52,000 words that were at least somewhat cohesive. I’m really glad I did it. I will probably do it again. But next time, in order to avoid the thing that happened this year, I will do it a little differently. I’ll either commit myself to writing a novel whose draft can actually be completed in 50,000 words- something with a simpler plot, perhaps, OR I will just throw the thirty days out the window and demand of myself that I keep doing my butt-in-chair time until the novel is finished. NO BREAKS. Not even for Christmas menu planning. Not even for the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead (which, by the way, I’m still sad about).

I’m not going to beat myself up about it. For one thing, I actually did an awesome job. I just didn’t do a complete job. But this isn’t a widget factory or a doctoral thesis. This is art. Completion can wait a little bit. I’d like to be a real professional and be one of those writers with daily quotas who “writes every day, no matter what”, but you know what? I’m getting there. Back off, dude. At least now I know I can do butt-in-chair time for approximately 2,000 words a day, every day. The habit will form eventually. And for another thing, if I beat myself up about it, I’ll be too depressed and self-loathing to ever finish the damn thing. And that won’t do. Live and learn and all that.

Well, I’m off to review those 52,000 words. Wish me luck!