Current State Report and Writing Excuses 13.02

Things are going to be a little different this week. Between the holiday, some bad sleep, more stress at work, and bad timing, I haven’t gotten all the writing work done I wanted to. I have gotten the book work done I needed to, but not the blogging. So, you get one this week. Maybe two if I’m able to finish up some stuff.

Current State

I’m 25% complete with the current revision of my novel Betrayed. That is the part of writing that has been going well. I also got back a response from a beta reader which pumped up my enthusiasm a lot. So, I’m quite hopeful that the book will be in the right shape for querying agents when I’m all through with it this round.

Once I get to 50%, I’ll start really working on the pre-writing for my next novel. Which means between now and then, I need to do some research on pets and AIs. Fun stuff.

In physical tool updates, I ADORE my new keyboard. I’ll be trying to get some questions addressed that folks have asked, so please be patient. But my hand pain is completely gone, and I’ve been pushing pretty hard the last few days. So, it was expensive, but so far, worth it.

Last, today marks the start of a new habit forming session which I’m doing with my youth at church and with my writing group. My young men wanted to learn about how habits work and so last night was a chance to explore habits, and the result was me realizing that my recent writing approach has been killing my sleep pattern. I needed to make a change.

So the new goal is sleep early, up early, with my writing spread throughout the day, rather than all writing done in a rush at night. Day 1 feels pretty good so far.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.02 – Writing Active Characters

This week, the hosts looked at writing active characters and first reaction out of the box for me: “Holy cow! New Chicago team!”

Yes, it looks like the crew changed up this season. I’m sure if I followed the podcasters on anything more than just the podcast I would have seen this coming, but it was surprising to me. It makes a lot of sense. What a great way to keep things fresh. It’s too bad in one regard, because I really liked the old Chicago crew. Looking forward to getting to know the new folks!

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟

Usefulness to me right now: 🌟 🌟 🌟

So, perhaps it’s because I’m in the middle of revisions rather than drafting, but this doesn’t feel quite as useful to me at the moment. For a passive character, Brandon gave the example of having someone who always stands around and watches important events rather than being in them.

Current project – not an issue.

Book I just finished in November ? Might be an issue. So, not as useful at the moment, but it may be something I’ll need to address in future stories. I might have that tendency.

Overall, though, a good episode, though because of the new team who haven’t answered this question previously, the answers seemed at surface level. I hope they find their legs as the season goes and give good, meaty advice. Good enough for the very early writer, but I think they can all dig a bit deeper.

Something that didn’t get covered during the episode: my personal belief is that inactive characters are a warning sign/diagnosis criteria of plot problems. If your character isn’t interacting well with the events of the story, you might be telling the wrong story.

And I don’t necessarily mean redoing the story so your main character is at the center of events.

Maybe you have a seemingly passive character observing an action/adventure story, but rather than re-plot the action story, you need to be telling the coming of age story inside that adventure, of someone wistfully longing to be bigger or better than they are.

Or you have a relationship story where the a seemingly passive character can’t talk to the object of their affections. So maybe try telling the growth story inside of that problem.

In reality, this is just another variation on Mary’s favorite tool, the MICE quotient, with a story nested inside another story. It’s great because it allows you to have layers that might not come up in a straightforward tale. And it can let you keep what you’ve already worked and tweak it rather than starting over from scratch.

So, if you do find your characters being too passive, take a look at how to fix. It may be just a change of paradigm.

K, I think I’m going to call it there for the week.

I really enjoy the comments that I’ve been getting. Many thanks to those who have been reaching out. And with how busy the week has been, I’ll be responding to a couple of previous questions later this week, so hang in there.

Drop a line below and join in.

Ergodox EZ – One Week In

Update: I wanted to add my week long impressions before the daily recap, so edited to add that in at the beginning of the post; GMG

Week 1 Impressions

I am shocked at how quickly I have acclimated to the Ergodox EZ in my daily work. Granted, I’m using it nearly 6 hours a day between work and novel writing, but I really am surprised at how much I enjoy using it. I don’t think that much computer work is common for people. I also think I have a distinct difference over a lot of Ergodox adopters: I am NOT a developer or programmer. For me, that means I have fewer keys that I have to relearn.

For me, I needed to adapt to:

  • having the board split and hands farther apart
  • arrow keys on a layer
  • few shortcuts (bold, italics, cut, copy, paste, etc) at special positions on layer 0
  • thumb clusters

I think developers and programmers have more that they would have to adapt to – symbols, IDE shortcuts, window movement keys, maybe integrating vim/Emacs.

The other big impression: people will absolutely judge you for buying one, but on the inside, probably find it pretty cool. My boss calls my cube the “cockpit” now and asks if I like piloting the shuttle. But he was also very eager to give the Ergodox a shot and was amazed at how hard it was to master, giving me props for getting good at it as fast as I have. My co-workers all tried it as well and everyone came away saying it was cool,  impressed I would be willing to make this drastic change to my work place. One of them is even starting to learn about mechanical keyboards, perhaps moving towards one for himself one day.

Below, I’ve listed out my thoughts day by day, if that interests you. If you’ve got questions, feel free to drop them below and drift around to any of my other posts.

Day 0 – End of the day

I give in, my brain hurts. I went all day with Ergodox and could feel things kicking in slowly – left thumb is actually a useful digit now, arrows keys are right under my fingers, layers are starting to make sense.

But holy crap, I’m worn out. Very reminiscent of learning Colemak, where it isn’t a headache, but actually feeling like I can’t think anymore. I know gray matter in the brain has no nerve endings to feel, but this feels like a brainache.

Also, it’s weird to have my hands on separate boards. Wonder if that’s going to every feel normal.

But for the rest of the day, I’m switching back to my regular board just so that I can get this last email out.

I did however make all of my colleagues try it out on my QWERTY layer. I was hilarious to watch them try to process the changes introduced. None of them realized that the keys aren’t staggered until I pointed it out. They kept getting annoyed that they’d hit M and , at the same time.

Day 1 – Saturday half day

I did use it for doing revisions to my novel and I really like using is sorta one handed. Left hand on board with backspace and delete available and right hand on mouse. I could easily see doing gaming this way.

Still really struggling with bottom row not being staggered. This might be the thing which breaks me. If I can’t get this down, I can’t type and there’s not point continuing.

Day 3

I CAN FINALLY TYPE “C” WITHOUT ERRORS!! Still struggling with X, V, and B though, but I think my brain is finally accepting the new positions.

And I made a lot of iterations to my layout today.

Capture

Also, I realized that I had put too much under my right thumb cluster. The pain moved from ring/pinky of my right hand to my right thumb, so the last item on that list, v0.6, was to move my layer 1 key elsewhere and change it’s type. Things feel better already.

Day 4

I actually feel like I got work done today. I wasn’t thinking so intently on  how to use the keyboard, I just used it and got stuff done. Suddenly bottom row stuff wo

DCA profile keycaps now feel mostly normal. I like that I don’t have to raise up much to move from row to row. I still wonder how DCS profile might feel for more sculpting.

Tenting also feels like it has lessened hand pain and I’m really liking having my hands apart.

Day 5

Hmm, I’m using the built-in keyboard on my laptop during a meeting and I can’t type. My hands consistently are too far apart so I’m off the keys, I’m actually using my left thumb, though I keep hitting spacebar instead of backspacing. Ugh! Why don’t my fingers work?

Wait, there it is. After 20 seconds, my brain kicked in and I could suddenly type again just fine.

Who would have though that  5 days would be all that was needed to get that comfortable with a new system that my old one would feel foreign?

I think I need to make certain to use regular layout keyboards at least daily for a few minutes so that I don’t lose the ability to type on them at all.

Day 6

Only struggles now are using number row and remembering to use layer 1 for navigation (arrows, end, home) instead of reaching for the mouse. I’m surprised at how fast I can navigate if I just can remember where to hit.

Error rate is down significantly and hesitation when doing regular typing is nearly none. Password entry is slow since much of that is muscle memory that hasn’t yet adapted to the new layout. Using my text expansion software (TyperTask) is also slow for similar reasons.

I LOVE that I can independently move each half. Little bit of rotation in or out, move in or out. Just tweak things a little for that hand to reduce stress and discomfort just a little bit more. Every little bit is helping. Shoulders are more relaxed and hand pain is down. Now both hands feel like they are getting used, but not in pain. And the adjustments in tenting are helping. I’m actually finding that too much tenting can contribute to stress as well.

 

Notes with Checkboxes – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

Ah, the humble checkbox. How ticking you fills me with joy, a sense of completion, a small bit of the chaos locked away.

Or at least, that’s how I’ve heard some people describe them.

No, I’m not really going to wax poetic on the nature of notetaking apps, but I am going to talk about one of the easiest tools to use to get started on improving personal productivity if you’ve never used anything in the past: the checkbox or list.

How to Use

To me, list making seems a nearly universal approach to remembering to do something, a way to have a plan (albiet a very simple one) to deal with something we must do. We use lists for grocery trips, chores, errannds, packing, and just about anything we want to quickly jot down to do later. But lists on paper and checkboxes within digital notetaking apps (like Evernot, Google Keep, and OneNote) can be extremely powerful. I find I use them all the time, even within other productivity systems because of how useful they can be. 

At the simplest, grab a sheet of paper and list out all the things you want to do. You don’t even have to separate them into categories. Put your oil change right after your character motivation you just realized you needed to add to your current scene. 

Using them within a dedicated environment can be even more powereful. Some entire systems are built around them – Bullet Journals,  HipsterPDA, Todoist, TickTick, Wunderlist, AnyDo. Even the prioritized daily task list that was part of the Franklin Day Planner system I mentioned in the first article of this series is just a list of things to be checked off during the day.

Of course, things might start to get a little jumbled after a while so a strategy is useful in applying this to your fiction writing. And that’s the big problem with them – lists can spiral out of control. Often, when you start listing out everything you need to do, you get overwhelmed by actually seeing HOW MUCH you have to do. And then you can’t find the item you need or it doesn’t remind you to do it at the appropriate time.

So, how do I use them?

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Lists and checkboxes are a tool within the much larger system I have developed for myself (and that is the topic I’ll be talking through next time). I use them sparingly.

Inside my project management system, I will create lists of thing associated with that project and only that project. And I try to limit that to only specific tasks.

“Revise draft” is not an appropriate checklist item – too broad and too encompassing. “Revise scene for redundant emotional beats as part of 10% cut” is a lot more useful. It reminds me what specific task I should be doing in enough detail and focus to make sure I get that ONE thing done.

I use them for research to create a list of exact sources I want to review. My next book about rogue AIs and teenage girls getting caught up in a crime syndicate’s plans has a lot to do with pets, so I have a list of movies and books that feature the important relationship between owner and pet, alongside requirements to research neural networks and machine learning.

I have a list of exact topics for this blog post series. 

I have a list of buisness and personal branding changes I need to make with my website. 

For me, the biggest asset in list making is knowing the context of where that list would be useful and making sure that the list surfaces when I need to work on that topic. I make sure I am checking my system for these things on a weekly basis to ensure I’m getting things back into my head that need my focus now.

Applications and Apps

I already listed out several applications and apps above, but without giving any opinion on them. Mostly that’s because each of the apps has a devout following and I have found they all have things that make them good fits and bad fits for me. Most of them become their own systems if you use them long enough. Also, fair warning, I don’t use a MacOS or iOS device, so there’s likely a whole bunch of appse out there that I’m not aware of, so take the below with that in mind.

If you prefer living in a paper and pen world, give Bullet Journaling a look. It doesn’t work for me, but the flexibility is very good. 

Digitally, I think Evernote is the most useful notetaking tool and it has some decent list making and reminder resources, though it can be overkill. 

For a simpler digital note system, Google Keep is very clean and ties in nicely with the Google environment if you are already a Gmail lover. 

And if you just want a digital checklist, I recommend TickTick as a starting point as it has all the features that you’d likely want in the free version.

Finale

How do you use lists in your current work? Do they help you or do you find them superfluous? 

Comment and engage below.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 13.01 – Hero, Protagonist, Main Character

A new year, a new season of Writing Excuses. And this week’s episode got my soap box nerves tingling. Hero, protagonist, and main character – which is which and how to know which to use.

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

What a great episode! And it hit on one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to craft books for fiction writing – a determination to fit all main characters into a particular label.

One of my preferred craft books on structure is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, which I love for its many insights and approaches to developing the bones of a story. But I HATE his use of the label “hero” when talking about the the character of the story. Perhaps I should explain.

I don’t write stories about heroes, at least, that’s not how I think of them. I’m much more interested in the stories of everyday people thrust into extraordinary situations. Sometimes that lets a person’s heroic side show. And often, it doesn’t. So as Truby used the word “hero” to describe how the story theme gets built and all of the way that the structure ties back to desire and need and ghosts and all these things that tie into the character driving the story, I felt put off, like his words weren’t for my story.

Until I changed my brain to substitute protagonist every time he used hero. Then it all started to gel for me.

For the pod-casters, there is a difference between a hero, a protagonist, and a main character, and Mary described them as being in sets that overlap. Hearing it that way made me change my thinking on this a little bit. For them, the main character was the person through whose eyes we see the story unfold, the protagonist is the one making choices and actions that drive the story forward and changes through story, and the hero is the one that makes the heroic action or who we admire.  Sometimes those are all one character and sometimes they are three different characters and sometimes any mix in between.

And that’s where things really made sense for me. I’m currently working through a cut revision of my first novel and my main character is my protagonist, but he isn’t the hero. That role goes to another, and in my story, that ends up being a trope subversion, which I really like.  But being able to better separate the roles lets me see just how I can mix and match them to make very different kinds of stories.

 

Ergodox EZ – Day 0

So my board arrived last night, a day earlier than expected, which is always a nice bonus. Less nice was USPS caused a bit of a kerfuffle with how they do parcel delivery if someone isn’t home to receive the package. However, even with the issues, I am much happier with my USPS experience than recent FedEx deliveries with regards to parcels that require signature for delivery.

Still, all that mixed together meant that today was day 0 with the Ergodox EZ.

I’m not going to go into too much detail and for my regulars who aren’t keyboard aficionados, there might be a lot of jargon that will be unfamiliar. Since this is closer to steam of consciousness, I’ll direct you to the comments area if you’ve got something bugging you that you want to ask about.

Unboxing and Initial Thoughts

I got to have some help in opening my package, which is always a treat. And since I received a used unit, mine didn’t come with the same experience as someone getting it new. That said, major props to the seller who packed it very nicely with plenty of space and foam. All the bits, bobs, cables, and pieces were present and accounted for.

The Ergodox EZ is a little smaller than I thought it would be, which is good. Clean, white, and tight, I’m very impressed with the build quality. Solid as a kettlebell, though calling it equivalent to Superman’s abs might be a stretch. 🙂

This particular unit has Gateron Brown switches. This is my second experience with Gateron Browns and this experience is much better. The batch of Gaterons used on my Obin Anne Pro keyboard seem much mushier in comparison. These are crisp, very much akin to the Cherry MX Browns that I have on other boards. Typing feel is very nice. I will say that the Ergodox EZ doesn’t have the “hefty” feel in typing that my WASD CODE board does, but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I am very pleased so far.

IMG_20180105_103959.jpg
Nice nub!

Key caps are nice – the DCA profile is going to be a change that only time will reveal if I like. The nubs that comes on the F and J keys are so prominent and I love them; almost sharp to the touch. So easy to tell without looking if I’m on the home row or not. I would be very interested to try the DCS profile that the blank Ergodox EZ comes with.

Ortholinear Keys and Customizing the Layout

One of the obvious differences from other keyboard are the non-staggered rows,  and boy are they taking some time to get used to.

Reaching up from home row hasn’t been an issue, but the reaching down to the bottom row is so different, especially for my left hand. The X, C, V, and B keys just don’t sit where I’m used to and I’m way overreaching past where the keys are relative to where my brain thinks they should be. That’s going to be the hardest thing to master, I think. And since I will often be using other boards (laptop, personal Surface 4 Pro, conference room computers, etc.) I’m going to get plenty of chance to practice going from one to the other.

Getting used to the thumb cluster is going much smoother. By mid day, I had almost gotten used to the backspace key and the enter key being at thumb positions. And and I’m really getting used to having mouse control available to me through keys instead of having to reach for a mouse.

I had been using the online configuration tool in the days leading up to receipt in order to play with my initial thoughts of a layout.

Colemak layout on Layer 0 with dedicated cut/copy/paste and underline/italics/bold on the inner most column of each half and spacing/editing keys on the thumb clusters. As I haven been thinking about how I use computers each day, between work and prose drafting, I have tried to put the things I use the very most in that top layer. I think there will be plenty of tweaking to be done.

I also had a moment of consternation deciding how I wanted to deal with Ctrl-Alt-Delete (for logging into my work computer), Ctrl-Shift-Esc (used to pull up the Task Manager), and the combination of Win-Arrow keys (for moving and docking windows) as these are all things I will want to access quickly numerous times a day in my engineering work.

In playing with the configurator, I noticed what seemed like a few bugs and sent off an email to the Ergodox folks. The customer service response from them has been amazing. I kinda feel bad buying my unit used instead of buying a new one. I hope that providing some additional exposure will make up the difference.

IMG_20180105_102235.jpg

 

So what questions or comments do you have?  Leave them below.

 

 

Don’t Break the Chain – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

I did say that I got a lot of my productivity tips while reading Lifehacker, right?

This technique goes back to 2007 I read the article there writing by developer Brad Isaac, where he related some some productivity advice he received from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a good read, and  I recommend it if you want to see another application of this technique.

But I’m going to talk about it a little differently. It’s called Don’t Break the Chain and I’ve seen it make several reappearances as people re-popularize it.

How to Use

Don’t Break the Chain is about setting up a routine that you repeat everyday, and the focus really is on EVERY DAY.

Here’s how it works. You take a year calendar, one with a whole year on a single page, and place it on the wall with a big red marker next to it. For each day that you complete your task (whatever that might be, though for Jerry, Brad, and myself, that’s writing), you put a big red X through that day. And once you’ve done this for a few days, you have a chain of day. And the goal is don’t break the chain. Don’t miss.

That’s it. The idea is that as the chain grows, the pressure of having all those days chained together pushes you through the days when you don’t want to do the task, even if the only reason for that day is just to prevent yourself from breaking the chain.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Here’s where I get to reveal my deep, dark secret. I HATE this technique. I’ve tried several times to implement it over the 10 years since I first read about it and each time it was an abject, miserable failure that left me feeling worthless and useless with each attempt. So why share it with you?

Because it maybe the technique that works best for you.

The thing that I have loved most about learning about personal productivity is that it is, indeed, personal. Something that doesn’t work for me may be the best thing ever for you. And with time management, the changing times might make a once-failed technique into you most prized bit of knowledge.

Even though I don’t like this approach, I think you should know about it and try it for yourself.

So, I don’t use this technique at all in writing fiction. Or in any other facet of life.

Why Didn’t I Like It

For me, it became a metaphorical chain weighing me down – the constant nagging feeling that I was eventually going to screw up and break it became self-fulfilling prophecy. Children would get sick, work would go long, church obligations would rear up, friends would need help – inevitably something more important than my writing that one day would come up and I would end up breaking the chain.

I played with all sorts of “rules” that would still allow me to meet my goal while not actually getting anything done and that was where it really got to me.

If the chain became more important than the actual content of what I was producing, what good was the chain? Why bother keeping up a fake goal if I wasn’t actually making any progress on what I had set out to do.

In the time since trying it, I’ve learned that my particular style of work doesn’t benefit from having an outward scoring system. There are lots of new tools and apps out there which “gamify” life – giving points for making habits, dropping “life” if you screw up, leveling up with awards, etc. Turns out, those don’t make me want to do better in my actual daily life because they become too much to keep up with.

But maybe your life might benefit.

Applications and Apps

Because I haven’t been actively using it, I can’t say what phone or computer apps a would be useful for tracking a “Don’t Break the Chain” calendar if you wanted digital over paper. I know there is a website of that name that appears to let you track things over time, but I haven’t used it.

As for applications, I can think of tons. NaNoWriMo is a similar implementation of the same idea – though only over the course of 30 days. Write every day. That’s the basic idea.

Most habits are formed the same way – work on the item in question 30-60 days and eventually, a new habit will start to be formed.

Drafting, revision, character sketches, sending queries, pitching, personal branding and marketing, blogging – any of these could benefit from Don’t Break the Chain as a tool for encouraging work, to keep going through moments of lower motivation.

The other big way that something like Don’t Break the Chain can help is that by forcing yourself to work on something everyday, you clear away the low hanging fruit fast. It’s easy to keep reworking the same scene over and over if you only touch it once every two weeks because you’ve had all that time to think it over. But when you have to draft a new scene each day? You have to work smarter and develop better focus during the rest of the day so that your well is full when you sit down to create. That intentional focus, day after day, can be even more useful than the resultant product that you make.

Finale

So, am I wrong to hate Don’t Break the Chain? Have you used it or something similar? Do I need to take another look?

Also, I moving up my posting day for this series from Friday to Thursday. Let me know if you like the change.

I’d love to hear your comments.

Ergodox EZ – Day -2

Some of my real-space friends and acquaintances will know that I have a problem.

I have started buying keyboards. Expensive keyboards.

No necessarily break-the-bank types of purchases, but if your experience with expensive keyboards is a Logitech combo keyboard and mouse set, I’m not talking about those. I’ve started into the world of mechanical keyboards (which thankfully are coming down in price the more mainstream they become). My least expensive keyboard was the same price as that combo and it comes with only 61 keys – 40% fewer than a normal sized keyboard. Same price for something in a much smaller package.

Why pay so much for a keyboard? Well, I’ll actually be doing an entire series on that and reviewing the boards I have at some point later this year. Suffice it to say I find the quality, the feel, and the ergonomics of these boards much better than the wired USB keyboard that comes with your Dell or HP workstations. And ergonomics reason is the big one.

During NaNoWriMo this last November, I calculated I averaged 9 hours per day of keyboard usage (a little less on the weekends) between work and prose writing. That’s a lot. And my hands noticed. I’ve had some issues with RSI crop up in the past and the symptoms returned again in full force this year as I pushed myself to write more and faster than I have before.  So, I’ve been on the lookout for something that will further alleviate stress on my hands and fingers because this will likely be the state of affairs for some time – day job and night drafting. And I hope I have found it.

ergodox-original-min
The Ergodox (source ergodox.io)

It’s called the Ergodox. It’s a open source (code and design) split keyboard that has started to become popular in the keyboard enthusiast community. It uses programmable layers to allow for much greater functionality and efficiency in typing and by being split, each half can be placed and oriented to be the most comfortable. There are a lot of other differences, both visible and invisible.

The problem with it? I don’t want to mess with the software/firmware side of it. I can program, but only out of necessity, which all of this lovely flexibility would require. The other? You have to build it yourself from a kit of parts, which again, I could do, but I don’t want to spend the time and money acquiring all the tools I would need.

Thus enter my eventual choice – the Ergodox EZ. A manufactured, customizable version with a web-based configuration tool for programming all the layout changes.

99aca2643827f677e1d74ab2a69f5741
Ergodox EZ Shine (source ergodox-ez.com)

The big problem with both? Price.

Both units cost well over $200, with the EZ (with the accessories) going north of $350.

As I said, expensive. But I finally have gotten to the point where if I’m going to spend that kind of time typing, I really should make sure I have something that is going to help me, rather than hurt me. And if this can do it, it’s a bargain, even at those prices.

So, I found a used Ergodox EZ (same version shown) that a fellow enthusiast tried and didn’t end liking, selling it to me for a significant drop in price compared to new. Will it be worth it? Will I see a reduction in pain and strain in my hands? Will I be able to handle all the changes?

That’s what I’ll document over the next while – at least the next month – as I try out this new (and quite different to me) keyboard. That’s why this post it day -2; the board is due to arrive later this week and I’ve been started to wrap my brain around how I might actually make this thing work for me.

Next week I’ll post some unboxing photos and talk about my first brushes with the unit.

If you’ve got any questions, post them below and I’ll try to answer them.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.53 – True Confessions

My podcast app didn’t download the episode from Christmas Eve, so I’ll have to play catch up on that one. However, while driving to attend a write-in with my writing group of amazing people, I was able to get caught up on this week’s episode and it was a humdinger. (I’ve been rewatching Psych on Amazon Prime, so my language may be stranger than normal).

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟🌟 🌟 🌟

True Confessions was all about things that the hosts have attempted that they failed at, and not just old trunk novels from the starting days of writing, but more recent. For most of them, that was within the last year.

Listening to them postmortem their way through these failed project was inspiring and hilarious and made me feel in much closer company. These are all people whose works I have read and admired. And having just completed another novel where I pushed myself to do something I’ve never tried before (multiple POV), I can say that I also failed.

That story is a bit of a mess plot-wise and interest-wise (boring start and plodding), but as I have already mentioned in past posts, I learned a ton from writing it. That failure showed me what to fix the next time I work on a multiple POV story.

Learning to be okay failing at something is a challenge for me. I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life and frustration is my natural response when I don’t get something right within the first few iterations. I’m used to figuring stuff out quickly. But in the last decade or so, I’ve been getting better. Having a child who has a similar frustration response certainly helps make me more aware of it in myself as I try to remind and support him when he doesn’t get something right immediately.

Dealing with failure also has helped me work on my self-compassion. I recently read an article from Kristen Wong on the New York Times about self-compassion and how it can help with being confident. I am definitely one that needs to better learn good self talk; failure gives me a chance to see my weaknesses and acknowledge them within the context of my strengths. Yes, my story may have been a hodge-podge and not very good, but my story structure and plot-weave were so much better in this book than previously. And I tried something new that I also succeeded at – I balanced several story threads and gave them all appropriate weight and tied them together well. So, yes I failed to make something that I would publish (at least right now), but the bones of the story are correct.

So in the same spirit as the podcasters, please take my true confession to heart – you can and should fail frequently.

And as Howard Tayler’s Maxim #70 of 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries states:

 Failure is not an option – it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.

How I Use the Pomodoro Technique® – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

At heart, Pomodoro® is nothing more than timed focus. But in a world filled with constant  distractions – from phone calls to notification to people randomly asking you stuff – being able to deeply focus on a task can feel like a superpower.
Like many of the techniques and tools I’ve been exposed to over the years, I first heard about the Pomodoro Technique® , created by Francesco Cirillo, through an article on Lifehacker. Follow the links for more info if you’d like more background.

(Disclaimer: Note that this blog post is not affiliated with, associated with, or endorsed by the Pomodoro Technique® or Francesco Cirillo and the Pomodoro Technique® is a registered trademark of Francesco Cirillo.)

How to Use

The Pomodoro Technique® is quite straightforward. At its most basic:

  • Choose a task on which to you’d like to make progress
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes
  • Work on that task for the 25 minutes without distraction, interruption, or breaks
  • Then repeat

There is definitely more to it than what I’ve described and if you’re interested in seeing how to use it in a more complete fashion, I recommend you can visit the creator’s site at https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Where I really find the Pomodoro Technique® useful is in helping me remind myself that I have a superpower – the ability to focus deeply in a single task. When I find resistance cropping up in the form of tiredness, apathy, boredom, impostor syndrome, or whatever, this – more than almost anything else – gets me through it or past it to the creation on the other side.

If I’ve scheduled time to write, but the day has been buzzy and distracting, it can be hard to get traction to start creating. If I can’t get going on my own, out comes the timer and I try to do at least two rounds of Pomodoro®. Amazingly, once I get into the project again, the creative juices take over. This goes hand in hand with that other “mind trick” I use and Just Open the File. If I can just get started, the engine catches and I can keep it going.

The other scenario I find it helpful to use this technique is when I’ve run into a block. Something about knowing that if I can get some words down during one of these sprints gives me the confidences to break through to the other side.

Applications and Apps

All of the above applies to drafting prose for me particularly, and to editing and revision work.  Since I work in the realm of novels, that’s usually working on scenes or parts of scenes.

Consequently, I have also found that I can’t use it when I’m outlining or for other pre-writing activities. For those, once I get going I don’t want any artificial clock stopping me. Further, motivation isn’t an issue because a new project is by definition new and shiny. So less useful a technique in those cases.

As for apps, any timer is works. I’ve used Google’s built-in countdown timer (just do a search for those terms) and my watch timer. The original used a kitchen timer. Simplicity is a big part of why this technique works, so no need to overthink it. Get a timer, use it.

If you want to use an app for continuous sessions, I can also recommend the ClearFocus for Android. I like the layout, colors, and the way the app automates rest periods and longer bouts (stringing multiple sessions together over a couple of hours).

Who It Might Not Work For

If you deal with anxiety or if timed anythings set your teeth on edge, then the Pomodoro Technique® likely won’t make creating easier. I know a lot of people can’t stand the idea of creating to a clock; since that’s the whole point of this technique, it will likely not work for you.

Additionally, some types of creation just don’t fit well into 25 minute chunks, nor with the idea of deep focus. Some people can create just fine flitting from flower to flower in their garden of ideas. If you work 10 minutes on one scene, then 15 more on a character bio, then 5 minutes searching for a good inspirational background image, and then back to writing a scene, you might get annoyed when the timer goes “bing” right in the middle of your flow.

If you work in those kind of chunks, you could try it, but I really think 25 minutes is a nice sweet spot for getting deeply focused and then letting yourself have a break. If that isn’t how you work, you could modifying, but I’m not sure this style of technique would work.

Finale

If you’d like to learn more about the technique, and there is more to it than just what I’ve talked about, you can visit https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique. Check it out there.

So, what questions do you have? Have any of you had good success with this technique? Please share in the comments below.

Achieving Flow – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

Have you ever found yourself so invested in an activity that you forgot to eat? Hours passed in what seemed like minutes and during that time you find that you’ve completed a whole lot of whatever it was you were working on? According to my university choral conductor where I first learned about it, and to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has done the research on the topic, you’ve experienced a bout of flow.  And I’m convinced it’s a trainable mindset that can be invoked when needed.

For a bit more clarity Wikipedia defines it thus:

In positive psychologyflow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

History (a new section I’m adding for this article)

At Brigham Young University, I had the chance to join the BYU Men’s Chorus, an auditioned choir that – during my first year – was being newly directed by Rosalind Hall; a 200+ male voice choir with a wispy, effervescent Welsh woman as conductor whose accent took me completely off guard the first time I heard it. She quickly became one of my favorite people in the world.

That was the first of 6 years in the various choirs at BYU, many of them directed by Sister Hall. But it was during that first year that she started talking to us about flow. The way she described it, she wanted us to focus on the music, on our production of it, on her direction, on blending with our neighbor, on finding the right emotional connection, on anticipating tempo changes, and on and on.

And all that was too much she would say – too much to try to be actively focusing on if you were constantly hoping from thing to thing in your mind – am I blending? did I stick out too much on that note? did I cut off on time?

Instead, she encouraged us to work towards getting into flow, where the business of life and the business of creation both fell away and left you in a state of deep, satisfying engagement. You weren’t worried about what the final song was going to sound like or or if you were going to have it memorized. Rather you just rehearsed, in the moment, fixing what needed fixed right there.

She’d have us take a moment at the beginning of rehearsal and clear our minds, setting aside anything that was distracting – an upcoming test, anxiety about a date, homework problems still undone – and for that hour let ourselves be subsumed by the music.

After 6 years of practice, it’s a state I can drop into at will, especially for performing music, but anywhere else I want as well.

How to Use

The Wikipedia entry states that Csikszentmihályi’s Flow theory has three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

The first item to me seems self explanatory.

As a solo writer, #2 is an interesting one because that immediate feedback seems to indicate that another party must be involved. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. For me, this means that whatever I am working on has visible results that I can critique or modify – words actually appearing on page. That’s part of why I prefer to type my fiction instead of hand write – the length of time required to write by hand means that my brain is already off to the next sentence while I’m working on the current one, or visa versa in that I have to spend so long on the current sentence I don’t remember where I’m going next.

I’ve heard that some poets prefer type writers or hand writing their work for specifically this reason – it slows them down so that they can choose the right word.

The last condition is also an interesting idea – being able to do something and being able to be confident to do it. I have found this to be true as well in order to be able to get into flow.

I I believe learning some meditation techniques could be useful in training your brain to mitigate distractions which can help you get into flow. But this one is harder to give a lot of counsel on without actually knowing you and your situation.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

I find I can get into flow do most things related to writing unless I’m just really tired or distracted. Drafting is where I use it the most as it can be very easy to sit down and draft without breaking concentration. Fiction writing or blog posts are places where I find myself really falling into flow.

And revision – especially polish edits. I get caught up in the flow of my own story and find myself tweaking words here and there while I read along. I really like using it here because I can definitely tell when something in my writing pulls me out of the narrative. I suspect that readers are most annoyed with a story when it pushes them out of the flow they get when reading a good book.

Applications and Apps

Applications can be just about anywhere as I stated before. Any activity that could benefit from deep focus could benefit from achieving flow. But for me, I would say the best application is learning to make it a habitual mindset. The more often I can drop into flow, the more I can get done while also enjoying the process. And this is a lot of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about – that flow promote happiness.

I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assertions about how to achieve happiness in life, but I will confirm that I find myself happier when I finish a flow session. And I do think artists and creators who are able to be more productive and more creative by getting in flow will have more to be excited about in their work.

For apps or programs, I think it’s the opposite. Turn off notifications on your phone, close the email tab, and let people know not to disturb you. Flow can be hard to maintain if you constantly have things clamoring for your attention.

Who It Might Not Work For

If you deal with anxiety or if timed anythings set your teeth on edge, then the Pomodoro Technique® likely won’t make creating easier. I know a lot of people can’t stand the idea of creating to a clock; since that’s the whole point of this technique, it will likely not work for you.

Further, some types of creation just don’t fit well into 25 minute chunks, nor with the idea of deep focus. Some people can create just fine flitting from flower to flower in their garden of ideas. If you work 10 minutes on one scene, then 15 more on a character bio, then 5 minutes searching for a good inspirational background image, and then back to writing a scene, you might get annoyed when the timer goes “bing” right in the middle of your flow.

If you work in those kind of chunks, you could try it, but I really think 25 minutes is a nice sweet spot for getting deeply focused and then letting yourself have a break. If that isn’t how you work, you could modifying, but I’m not sure this style of technique would work.

Finale

If you’d like to learn more about the technique, and there is more to it than just what I’ve talked about, you can visit https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique. Check it out there along.

So, what questions do you have? Have any of you had good success with it? Please share in the comments below.