Preparing to Launch 2018/19

I’ll admit I’ve been a bit slack lately. Sure, there’s been sickness involved and partial-insomnia, which never helps. But there’s also been some slackness. There was some playing of Sid Meier’s Civilization V which is awesome in it’s time-wasting capacity. Because I love turn-based strategy games, that led almost inevitably, to some mucking around with a home-grown battle simulation program where I was trying out if-I-made-a-Civilisation-game mechanics… I also seem to have grown an unhelpful enjoyment of e-sports (StarCraft II). It hasn’t all been bad; there have also been some valuable time-expenses like time with family and friends or doing the necessary chores that part of being an adult.

2018 has found me busier and more spent than 2017, and possibly any year before that. (Take that with a grain of salt, my memory struggles much beyond 24 hours these days).

We’re about to tick over to a new financial year and I’m using that as motivation to regain some momentum and discipline. I’d like to spend my time more wisely and be more productive. Time, after all, is our most precious resource. We never know how much we have (though we assume) and we can’t get it back once it’s gone.

And so I am getting ready for 2018/19 by clearing the distractions out of the way. I’ve deleted most of the games from the computer, and I’m making a conscious effort to not go looking for new e-sport videos. These last few days of 2017/18 are my “training days” for the new year.

It’s been a few years since I’ve tried to make plans (and tried… more/less) to stick to them. Naturally I haven’t done this lately, because I prefer not to broadcast my failure. I know that it’s true though – goal setting is beneficial. I’m going to try to record my productivity, so then I will be able to more-accurately estimate sensible goals.

It is my intention to work toward monthly goals in a more structured approach. These goals won’t all be writing related – but are likely to be broader: writing, faith, programming, health and social.

I’d be curious to hear how you set goals and the strategies you use to keep yourself on-track.

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A Writer’s Error. Again.

On the long weekend just passed I’d intended on getting a good chunk of writing done. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

(Sidebar: In On Writing Stephen King wrote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” If I may take literary license, I believe King was close: the road to hell is paved with good intentions, which are described in adverbs yelled by the travelers on the road).

The derailment of my writing weekend began innocently enough. For months the beautiful Mrs Ezard and I had been discussing the need to re-mulch our garden but had been either busy or the weather had not played along. However on this weekend, the fine weather and the empty calendar dovetailed together perfectly: This wasn’t an error. Even though I had planned to do writing on Saturday (after a few other errands) the garden did need mulching, and I like to look after what I own. So we called in the truck and shoveled mulch, spreading it far and wide. (Too high, it turns out I was told by a well-meaning but ill-timed piece of advice). Too late now; fight-to-live or die, garden.

Even though the work was done in just under 2 hours (an epic job), I was exhausted. The remainder of the day was spent recovering on the couch. No choice there; the body was sore and weary.

Sunday afternoon was also slated for writing; it didn’t occur. Due to laziness, I admit. It was, I realise now, a fault of thinking: I considered that I had a choice whether or not to write. Writing, however, for me, should not be treated like a hobby but a job. If I want to write full-time, then I must take it seriously. There is no choice, just like my Monday to Friday job. You must turn up to write, no choice involved. There is always Monday I thought, I can write all day Monday, I promised myself.

The brain, I think, is like any other muscle: you must exercise it. If you let it be lazy, then it likes to be lazy. All of Sunday on the couch watching TV meant my brain wasn’t in any shape to work creatively on Monday. Sure, I squeezed out a few hundred words – but my brain has been trained to be lazy. I’ve unwittingly shown it how. Being lazy for one day, can mean more than one day is lost in productivity.

My next mistake was trying to be too focused on a single project. I was trying to write chapter 2 of The Hostages. I did some of it, but then I persisted trying to do more when it wasn’t flowing nicely. What I should have done (earlier) is switch projects. So, if writing The Hostages hit a wall, I could have swapped to revising The Rebel Queen. Ordinarily I like to focus on a single project at a time plot threads don’t mix or character motivations don’t muddle. However, progress on any writing project is preferable to a complete lack of progress. Also I might have tried to skip ahead in the story; there is nothing to say a story has to be written chronologically. I knew this, of course, but the knowledge was different to explicit internal permission to do so.

The final lesson is the need to learn lessons. I’m sure if I trawl back through my blog I will see the same themes, if not exact words. On my to-do list since January has been to extract the key lessons from my 2016 posts onto some of my other resource pages. I haven’t done that yet, but I need to if I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes again. And again.

Picking up the Tools

It’s six o’clock and I’m expecting the wife home in ten minutes. At which time I need to fulfill my promise of making us dinner. That could be a problem considering there is no meat defrosted and no other preparations underway. Simple toasties or two-minute noodles will not suffice… not after the  promises I made. Dining ‘out’ or takeaway is not going to cut it either; they should be treats to her, not an antidote for my laziness...

The above is not a true story (well, not today anyway) but an analogy for how I feel I have treated you, my readers. I know we aren’t married and most of you peruse my blog like a casual night out… But still when I promise something, I need to deliver. And the deliveries haven’t been on time lately.

Recently I’d been going through a hard patch where my stress levels were getting out of control. I needed to take some time off and change my routine, so I did. The problem was, I never really came back. Like a guy sunning himself on annual leave, I just forgot to come back to the cubicle.

Publishers and readers will have a right to expect professionalism from me, and that involves delivering on promises.

I am reminded of something on one of the Writing Excuses podcasts: If you want to be professional at writing, then be professional. Treat it like a job. That means:

  • writing when it’s hard, or
  • writing when you’d rather be doing something else

I would never stop working while I’m on the company’s time; and so I shouldn’t stop working when I’m on my ‘writing time’.

I am going to start planning my writing time in advance, and sticking to it.

I’d love to stay and talk philosophical, but I’ve got writing to do.

Distracted

I’ve written before about the importance of knowing how you write most effectively.

As I described in more detail, if I’m going to have a good day of writing then I need to get going early and avoid distractions. If I allow myself to become distracted by other activities  then it will ruin my productivity for the whole day. Distraction to me isn’t like a faucet that can be turned on and off;  it’s like a dam breach. Once water starts to come through the crack it’s only going to get worse.

This happened at the start of the week: a lack of discipline turned a free day where I could conceivably produce 3,000 words to a day where I got virtually none. 😦 It’s depressing to know that the free day I just wasted (and didn’t even enjoy) is the equivalent of about two weeks of after-work writing.

Be smarter than me: invest your time wisely, guard your writing disciplines.

I’m still learning how to be an Author

I played with the title of this blog a bit… at first it was going to be “I’m still learning how to be a Writer”, but the reality is that anyone with the inclination can write. (Note that I’m always thankful that I have been blessed with education).

But just because you have held a fishing line a few times in your life, does not qualify you to be called a fisherman.

It’s the same with writing; I want to be someone who is continuously writing, developing their craft. For the purposes of this blog post, a writer is someone who can write, an author is someone who must write.

Discipline

I’ve blogged about it before several times and every book I have ever read about writing highlights discipline as a necessary attribute; perhaps the biggest. I have to admit, in the last week or so my writing discipline has been a little lax. I’ve chosen to do other things, which is pretty stupid given the limited time that I have and how that impacts on my writing goals.

This time it was computer games that were my siren song of undoing, and I have put them on notice: If I fall to their melody again I will be purging them entirely (so as to make re-acquisition something that would take hours, not minutes).

Planning vs Free-fall

I’ve blogged about these before too – the two methods of writing a story (and there are numerous synonyms for the terms): outlining the story first or letting the story just happen more organically.

To-date my writing consists of one novel and one novelette which is not a lot of experience.

My first novelette Escape from Hell (available free) was all free-fall. I had a flash of inspiration where I saw the whole story and it virtually wrote itself in a few weeks.

My novel Vengeance Will Come came about largely through ‘free-fall’. I had a vague idea of the plot and could see a rough outline of the characters. I lined them all up along a cliff, and then pushed them off, leaping after them to see what would happen. I was about three quarters of the way through my descent when I realised I was flailing big-time. I had to stop and plan because the end wasn’t making itself seen. Without planning, the project would have died entirely. At this point in my experience arc I thought planning was awesome and I was definitely going to do it that way in the future.

However the opposite happened with my second novelette The Rebel Queen. I did some preparation work, but then found myself getting stuck because the preparation was drying out my enthusiasm for the story. So with enough material to hopefully make a parachute on the way down, I’m leaping off the edge.

So clearly I’m still learning what suits me best and in what ratio I need to plan or free-fall.

YOU can be an Expert Writer

Reproducable scientifically-based research into exceptionally talented people in all human pursuits (including writing) reveals a clear conclusion that anyone who is committed and has the right opportunities can become an talented in their field.

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. (1)

Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. The advantage that an aspiring author has, is that they aren’t racing the clock in quite the same way as an aspiring sports person. (Though in the WritingExcuses podcast (S08E08) they do talk about the physical damage that being a professional writer can do).

Many people are naive about how long it takes to become an expert. Leo Tolstoy once observed that people often told him they didn’t know whether or not they could write a novel because they hadn’t tried—as if they only had to make a single attempt to discover their natural ability to write. Similarly, the authors of many self-help books appear to assume that their readers are essentially ready for success and simply need to take a few more easy steps to overcome great hurdles. Popular lore is full of stories about unknown athletes, writers, and artists who become famous overnight, seemingly because of innate talent—they’re “naturals,” people say. However, when examining the developmental histories of experts, we unfailingly discover that they spent a lot of time in training and preparation. (1)

The experts say that it will take 10,000 hours to learn to become an expert, regardless of innate aptitude. I’ve heard it said of writers that it takes a million practice words.

The moral of the story is: anyone can do it, if you have the time and are disciplined.

Further reading:

  1. The Making of an Expert
  2. Nikola Tesla: Imagination and the Man That Invented the 20th Century
  3. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance