A Strategy for Productivity

Years ago I did some management studies. It was a massive amount of work (when coupled with actually working at the same time), but also very enjoyable. I appreciated the brain-expansion and exposure to new knowledge.

One of the articles I read was ‘Getting things done: The science behind stress-free productivity’ by Francis Heylighten and Clement Vidal. My guess is, almost everyone wishes they were more productive, so I thought I’d share some of the article insights.

“GTD” is a simple and practical method for knowledge workers to manage busy days and ensure maximum personal productivity.

GTD-Workflow-Diagram.PNG
Source: http://www.eproductivity.com/dx/GTD-Workflow-Diagram.pdf/$file/GTD-Workflow-Diagram.pdf

The flowchart defines how work should be processed. In summary, if it’s a 2 minute task it should be done immediately, otherwise it should be allocated time in the future, with prompt-actions created.

The article contains reasoning on how the brain works (and therefore why the system works).  For example, the long-term memory has good recognition but poor recall; the short-term memory holds 7 items in active memory, and the energy required to actively remember something in the short-term is high.

Here were the points in the article I highlighted:

  • As much as possible, offload your mind by storing information/thoughts in a trusted external memory (paper, computer), in a structured format that is easily retrievable.
  • Record this information in an “actionable” form (so it reminds you what needs to be done).  Hopefully to stop you leaving a vague message that becomes cryptic after 5 minutes.
  • Be efficient with your actions.  (i.e. if you’re in close proximity to a task, do them now). When you’re doing a task make sure that you’re in an environment, with the proper tools, to perform that task with maximum effectiveness. “strike while the iron is hot.”
  • Switching to different tasks (mentally and physically) costs time and energy, so minimize job transitions (avoid disruptions).
  • When an ‘opportunity’ arises, but cannot be taken (due to current priorities) file it away in a ‘someday/maybe’ file, so the opportunity is not entirely forgotten.
  • GTD manages from the bottom (concrete issues you have to deal with) rather than from the top (high-level goals and values). It points out that if you try planning downwards you will simply be overwhelmed by the number of possibilities you have to take into account.
  • Each time you have performed one of these tasks, mark it off and write the next action.  In this way all of your project(s) are moving forward.

None of these suggestions are ground-breaking, but if applied consistently I believe it would increase my productivity. As a writer, I have two immediate take-aways: clean my workspace up and avoid “broswing” on the Internet.

Right: blog post written (or read) *check*.

Move onto your next task, and good luck.

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.

Strategies for Editing

In my very limited experience editing is not easy. Or maybe it’s just not as fun as other parts of the writing journey? When I’m plotting I get to play with pretty spreadsheets. While writing I am creating worlds and grand adventures for my characters. But when it comes to editing all I have to do is cut or change words. The element of creativity is greatly diminished and now the challenge is perfection. Not hard at all, really :|.

This is the first time that I am editing a novel-length story… I’m certainly finding it a challenge, but here is how I plan to tackle it:

#1 Editing Comes First

It would be easy to become embroiled in a new plot or a fresh band of characters in my next story. Which is why I must not start the next story until revision of Vengeance Will Come is at least well underway if not complete.

#2 Divide and Conquer

If I think of my editing task as simply editing 114,000 words the task seems daunting. Beyond daunting.

Analysis paralysis or paralysis by analysis is an anti-pattern, the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.

Fortunately my novel is arranged in handy divisions called chapters and scenes, so I can use them to divide the problem. It’s only a mental division, but if it helps in the process it’s a win.

#3 Have a Clear Goal

If I’m editing with a vague purpose (e.g. “tighten the prose up”) then it would be really easy to gloss over the text, stamp it as done and move on. I’ve read in multiple places that a revision should cut 10% off the length so that’s what I am considering to be my goal.

I can’t remember exactly where I heard it but one approach was to cut 10% of words in every scene. Even if I cut an entire scene (and so reduce a chapter by more than 10%), all of the remaining scenes for the chapter must still be trimmed.

I’m not a stringent believer that every chapter should be the same length – but I do appreciate that it is helpful to the reader if they become accustomed to chapter length. Being my first novel, chapter uniformity wasn’t a consideration, as you can see from the chart below.

VWC Chapter length pre-edit
The length of the chapters is seemingly random

I’m not a miracle worker, so it is mostly what it is. I will however make some effort to harmonise the chapter lengths by making the % reduction more sophisticated. Hold onto your hats, this is about to get complex.

  • All scenes will have a minimum target of 10% reduction.
  • If the chapter length is 21% to 60% larger than the average chapter length and the scene is more than 20% larger than the average scene then it will be cut by 13%.
  • If the chapter length is more than 60% larger than the average chapter length and the scene is more than 20% larger than the average scene then it will be cut by 15%.

The idea is that the bigger the chapter, the harder the cutting. (I will of course be also looking for chapter-splitting opportunities on the skyscrapers in the graph above). Based on all these formulas it would result in an overall reduction of 12,773 words.

vwc stats before edit

vwc edit goal

An example of a darling to be cut.

“Friend is a slippery term when one is rich or powerful, and I am both. I have too many ‘friends’ already, why would I wish for more?” Regent Menas Senay, Vengeance Will Come.

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.

World-Building a new Species

For The Rebel Queen I must do some world-building of the Deckarian species.

Firstly, I need to be aware of what constraints I have put on myself through Vengeance Will Come. (In which Deckarians feature).

Secondly, I need to design how the Deckarians are as a species and how their civilisation functions.

I have admitted before that I can have world builder’s disease (excessive world building), but actually completing a story has given me impetus to keep completing stories.

To focus my work I’ve written a few dot-points of subjects that I want my world-building to cover.

  • Terminology (how do they refer to themselves)
  • Religion
  • Economy and concepts of ownership
  • Government structures
  • Technology
  • Key Industries
  • Relationships and Social Roles
  • Biology (from life to death)
  • Living conditions (see also Society in Planning: Setting)
  • Education standards
  • Individual Aspirations and self-determination
  • Military doctrine (defence, offence)

Taking this list, I then further define it with a series of sub-points, For example Religion becomes:

Religion

  • What is the belief structure gods, priests?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • How does it impact on society?
  • How does it impact on personal or family life?
  • What are the major observances?
  • What’s the view of non-believers?
  • Eternal life?
  • How does one become a follower? Can one become an apostate?
  • How strongly is it adhered to?

Even though that may look like a lot, I only plan on writing anywhere from a sentence to two paragraphs on each.

Planning: Setting

The three key aspects of any story are setting, plot and characters.

Here are some questions that I ask myself when developing the setting. You won’t necessarily need to answer all of these questions for every story. (I will add to these as I think of them; can you think of any others I can add to the list?).

Where is the story set?

  • Is it in a physical, real-life location, or a made-up fictional place? Is it in a spiritual realm or in a dream-like state?
  • What are the key areas within this ‘world’ where events will take place? It is common for epic fantasies to visit multiple cities and space operas to visit multiple planets.

Environment

  • What kind of environments are these – urban, rural, desert, frozen tundra…?
  • What does the topography/geography look like? Is it flat, or mountainous terrain? Are there any main visible features?
  • What kinds of flora (plants) are in the area? Are there many of them, or a few? Are they native or imported? Are there part-sentient yellow tulips with razor-sharp edges or head-high sugar cane?
  • What kind of fauna (animals) are around? Are they native or imported? Are there chirping birds overhead or herding cows on the hillsides? Or are there ominously no animals?
  • What time of year does the story occur in? What is the season/weather like? What is the temperature, humidity and precipitation like?
  • What time is the sunrise and sunset?
  • How has the environment shaped and been-shaped by the inhabitants? Do the people love or hate where they are? Has it made them strong, or are they weak because it is so luxurious?
  • Is there one or more magic systems in play? If so, who gets to use it? What are the rules for its use? How do you learn it? Are there ‘costs’ or dangers involved in its use? How do the general populace feel about magic-wielders?

Society

  • Are the people insular or multicultural (or multi-species)?
  • How are the groups (if they exist) in society different? How do they feel about each other? How much do they interact or keep themselves segregated? Do they serve specific and regimented roles within the society?
  • Who are the people ‘in charge’, and why are they in charge? Is it because of a specific attribute (physical strength or ability, mental ability). Or is it because they belong to a certain family, profession or are special in some other way? Do they fight to hold onto their power, or are they appointed by the populace? e.g. political, religious, technocratic (Forms of government)
  • What is the general mood of the people? Do the people like their rulers? Are they heavily taxed-until-death or pay no taxes? What kind of laws (legal and religious) exist? Are the people well-educated or considered expendable? How much self-determination do the people have? Are they in control of their own destiny or do others dictate it?
  • What level of technology exists? Does it belong to everyone, or can only certain people operate it? If a subset, is it because of genetics, education or a religious taboo…?
  • Do the people in this area all have a common occupation (e.g. farming) or is it diverse? Do they work hard or not work at all? Are the occupations ‘real world’ or fantastical? Are they content in their roles?

Infrastructure

  • Are there any buildings around? What is the architecture like? What are they constructed of? What kind of condition are they in? Does the infrastructure work, or is it dilapidated through misuse, neglect or harsh conditions?
  • How populated are the locations? Are they densely or sparsely populated, or not populated at all?

Writing Excuses: Generating Story Ideas

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the first part of WritingExcuses podcast Season 1, episode 2. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section). There are so many comments to make on this episode that I decided to split it into two blog posts.

Writing Excuses suggest:

  • When coming up with a story blend an ordinary idea (that people can relate to) with an extraordinary idea (something new). Screenwriter Terry Rozier calls this a “strange attractor“.
  • Be aware that the “trendy” ideas that are originally extraordinary become ordinary or cliché when over used. e.g. vampires. It was extraordinary in “Buffy” but now has been so overdone that someone really does need to stake the idea entirely.
    • You can however take an overused idea, and spin it differently by turning the idea completely on its head.
  • How much “ordinary” and “extraordinary” readers want depends on the genre and the modern-trend of the genre.
  • Ask yourself the hard question (and consider it deeply): Is this new or has it been done before?
  • Genius isn’t often about coming up with something new, but combining two existing things together in a way that no one has done before.

I don’t think you have to have the blend of ordinary and extraordinary. If you can, that will make a good book, but you can have a good book by re-telling essentially the same story. Dirk Pitt anyone? In the defence of the Writing Excuses crew they gave a nod to this with the idea of reader expectations. e.g. romances are all the same, just with different character names.

Fiona McIntosh says about generating story ideas:

There’s always a trigger. We may have read an article or seen a documentary. Something has caught out attention on the internet, or someone has told us an anecdote or recounted a particular experience. Sometimes the spark comes from our own lives but more often than not the seed of a story is given to us by an outside source. We water it and nourish it and look after it and that seed grows and flourishes into a full-blown tale because we’ve added our imagination and our life experiences to it. It may even be a series of ideas blending and working together. Essentially stories for novels are drawn from everyday life.

That’s not helping you, is it? Much too vague, right? Sigh. I know. I warned you, we don’t really know.

Update: In fairness to Fiona McIntosh I later read further and she goes on and describes how she came up with ideas for her books, in much the same way as I did below.

For what it is worth, I get my inspiration from many different places. It can be something I have been thinking about, something I witnessed or simply a story based on a desire to experiment with the writing craft.

  • I first began my novel Vengeance Will Come when I was about sixteen and under the influence of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and the Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins. Honestly it’s evolved favourably since then because it was pretty terrible at its birth. The story theme is as old as the first hell-fire sermon: a great apocalypse is coming. Being the first in the series it is an origin story for some of the characters and plots. There is nothing particularly new in it’s themes: brooding war, political wrangling and personal struggles are all well worn themes even when set on the broad canvas of the universe. It’s a fairly standard sci-fi fantasy mix.

If you haven’t read my novelette Escape from Hell or my short stories then I suggest you do, or stop reading now.  There is about to be spoilers.

  • My novelette Escape from Hell came from dreams and thoughts of what heaven and hell could be like. It was also partly inspired by the Bible, Heaven is For Real and Saved by the Light (which I didn’t finish).
  • The short story The Captive was born because I wanted to practice the writing technique of a “reveal”. To do this, I needed a surprise, and in the same week I began thinking about what it must be like to live with dementia or another medical issue which distorts reality.
  • The short story Alone was a follow up story (from The Captive) was written as a challenge to myself to write a parallel story that was limited and yet still emotive.

I have a dozen ideas of varying themes and genres that I am looking forward to writing, once I get Vengeance Will Come finished.

If you’re so inclined, tell me how you come up with your story ideas…