Just Open the File – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

To start off this series about personal productivity and time management for writers, I thought I would offer up a tip – or at least a phrase – of my own devising.

I call it Just Open the File (JOTF) and it’s such an absurdly simple idea that I hesitate even calling it a tip. But it has worked for me. And it might work for you.

How to Use

Just Open the File is exactly that – a personal mantra to remind yourself to open whatever it is you are working on – outline, revision, draft, character sketch, blog post, or whatever. Push past the feeling of boredom with your current opus, ignore the siren call of one more round of Splatoon 2, and leave aside the micro slam poetry battle on Twitter.

You open the file. It’s the smallest step you can take while making forward progress. Feel conflicted about where your story is going? JOTF. Got writer’s block and can’t decide what to write? JOTF. Hate everything and want to start over? Just open the file.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

I use this to trick my brain into using my existing habit of “working on what’s in front of me.” When I started learning about habits and habit forming (a whole ‘nother series) I kept hearing about “lowering the threshold” to the thing you wanted to do.

An example of lowering the threshold for a new habit: Want to work out more? Leave your workout clothes out and visible so you see them more frequently, so they’re right there waiting for you to put on as soon as you get home from work.

For me Just Open the File is an attempt to hack the routines and habits I already have. I’m the type of person that works on what I have open. If I see something sitting open in front of me, I start to “ideate” on it – little blips of thought of how or what comes next.  So, opening the file of my current project lowers threshold to actually working on it because, well, there it is, right there, in front of me.

When I am feeling decidedly bad and don’t want to work, I make a promise with myself that the only thing I’ll really push myself to do is to open the file. That’s all the will power I have to have. If I do open the file and I still don’t want to work, that’s fine. Good, even. I celebrate it. Look at me! I opened that file. Let’s send out a dance gif.

And then, almost invariably, I get this feeling that I could do just a bit more. Not much. Maybe a sentence or re-read a paragraph.  Even then, it might not be much. But it’s forward progress. It’s better or more complete than what I had.

And I do this over, and over, and over, until eventually, I don’t have to think about opening the file, I just do. I start.

Applications and Apps

I use this everywhere – personal and professional. Every time I feel myself resisting doing work I know I should be doing, I just re-state my little contract and open the file.

There aren’t really any apps per se – it could be opening an email draft or re-reading a text from somebody about something I don’t want to do. Anything where that sense of “Ugh, do I have to?” pops up. Use JOTF as a commitment to make forward progress.

Who It Might Not Work For

Type A, super-go-getters, major productive heroes. You lot already have this problem nipped.

Less tongue in cheek, I think this is something that could useful everywhere. Finances? JOTF. School homework? JOTF.

It’s all about making the first step so small it doesn’t actually feel like a step.


What other simple hacks or tricks do you use to get motivated to work on what you don’t want to do?

Leave comments below. I look forward to stealing seeing them.

My Reflections on Writing Excuses 12.50 – Form and Function

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟 🌟

(for the rating obsessed types out there – these are out of 5 stars)

This was a great episode, mostly for the content and the interplay with the Chicago hosts. I really like Wesley Chu and Mary Anne Mohanraj as additions to the hosting crew – Mary Anne especially. I love her insights and I get a lot from the perspective she brings from her experience outside of speculative fiction. Tangentially, it’s likely my humor metric above will track with Howard’s appearance on the episode – we’ll see.

This week’s episode is about how form can dictate function within the realm of writing. It covered everything from writing for audiobooks to long form writing using a quill and ink to Eric James Stone’s business card flash fiction (which is a TOTALLY awesome bit of self branding – yes, I have been watching vids about marketing; why do you ask?).

My first paid project as a writer (woot woot) was writing a series for a stage production of radio plays for local theater group Main Street Radio Players – which allowed the troupe to perform a live show without the need for elaborate costumes and sets. I did a four episode crime thriller.

I LOVED doing this project even though it was so incredibly hard. Everything in that story had to be reflected through dialogue and sound effects – and even then, the sound effects got cut. Trying to tell a story that way when all my previous experience had been to only pepper dialogue through out was most challenging. Getting mood, story tone, description, BLOCKING (for crying out loud), through just dialogue was such a powerful growth experience. In that case the form of medium dictated entirely HOW the story could be told.

I couldn’t rely upon tricks like exposing a character’s internal monologue or letting silent “glances” or “looks” convey beats. I did use a narrator, but limited it to episode introductions and scene transitions. It was a fabulous experience.

Back to reflections on the episode – the gist was to use these different forms as ways to experiment, to break out of ruts, and to break through blocks. While I could see doing a different “form” for a scene just to try something out, a lot of the growth from my experience came from doing a finished work.

Do I think every writer should try a complete work in a different format than their norm? No, absolutely not. But I think there may be many writers who will treat this idea as just one more writing “gimmick” and miss out on a beneficial experience.

So, if you’ve done things like this before and didn’t find them useful, give a little more thought to doing something larger or more complete. That said, it’s not the kind of thing I think a writer should worry about. If you want to expand your craft and your flexibility – go for it.

Personal Productivity and Time Management for Writers – Series Introduction

When I was 17 or 18 years old, I attended a evening seminar with my dad presented by Franklin Day Planners (now Franklin-Covey). In it, the speaker, Hyrum W. Smith, gave a lecture about time management concepts and demonstrated the use of the Franklin Day Planner system.

It was engaging and intriguing and I immediately turned to my dad after it was over and we decided to invest in a day planner system for me to use my senior year of high school in prep for college.

Since that time, I have gravitated towards lifehacks, techniques, tricks, and systems all with the goal of improving my work and my life and reducing the amount of stress that those inevitably cause. I’m not passionate about it or only live thinking about how I can squeeze one second more out of my day, but I do find the idea and application useful for reducing stress and improving balance between all the various things that pull at my time. So, I’ve done a lot of reading, experimenting, and research into the various time management and project management choices that are out there.

I’m no expert, but I have used and do use many of these in my daily routine.

In this series, I want to discuss these several options in relation to being an author and novelist. I won’t make a ton of recommendations because personal productivity and time management can be very individualized. But I can at talk about how they might be incorporated and where they might be useful for a writer.

Quick Disclaimer: None of the items in this series are endorsements for any product, software, or system. I’m not getting paid to promote or write about any of them. These are just reflections on my own personal use and suggestions for how others might be able to use them.

Subscribe, follow along, engage in the comments, and share your thoughts and experiences. I’m always on the lookout for new things to try.

What’s Next For Me

There are a lot of things I want to do: the next story, revisions of my first novel, agent pitches.

But one that’s been in my mind a lot: getting better at building a writing community.

Building a writing community

One of the things I have loved most about the particular community of writers that have taken me in is that we aren’t all that much into critiques or brainstorming or being “writerly”. There is however a contingent that is out to make this a business and a viable one at that.

In other words – we have professionals.

And the thing about being with pros is that you kinda can’t help thinking like they do – working to deadlines, showing up, bringing your craft into the light, putting yourself out there – pros get it done. And I realize that I’ve got to step up and be a better pro myself.

Part of that is going to revolve around the new website and changes which I am researching right now and will bring online within the next month. Another part of that is forcing myself to learn and to even like stuff I haven’t wanted to deal with: marketing and personal branding.

I’ve got some plans for how I’m going to tackle those and a lot of it is just getting the ideas into my head.

How does all of this go towards building a writing community?

I don’t know exactly. But it’s gotten me thinking.

I recently had a conversation with a potential beta reader and another acquaintance about books. Both of these individuals expressed an idea that harmonized with something that I have felt – both as a reader and a writer.

They both said how much they valued authors and writers that they could trust.

I’ve thought a lot about that since we spoke and about what that means to me. And I don’t yet know how it will take shape going forward, but it will be part and parcel of what I hope to build – here and in real life.

The community I want to help build is one of trustworthy authors.

Again, I don’t know exactly what that means, but I definitely want to figure it out.

What does that phrase mean to you? Who are authors you trust?

Let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Writing Excuses 12.49 – Nonlinear Stories – Reflection

Episode Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Humor: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

Usefulness to me right now:  🌟 🌟

This week’s episode about nonlinear storytelling was intriguing thanks to the way the episode plays out (which is really more enjoyable for fans who are familiar with the the show), but then also in all the examples they used to talk about nonlinear approaches to storytelling.

I think nonlinear stories are by very nature different because so much of our memories and the way we tell stories in the moment mirror the linear fashion in which they happened. But I was impressed at the various examples they use during the show. The only one nonlinear story common enough to get its own category was the flashback, but the other examples were good in helping to flesh out the thought space of the episode.

I will say that for me, nonlinear stories have been a lot of fun. The ones I remember most are the ones where a story plays out multiple times, each from a different character’s view point. This has started to become a more common TV episode trope that I see being used more and more frequently. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets it own name soon like flashback. Maybe it already has and I just don’t know about it.

The other exmaple that I don’t think got discussed was the flashforward. The one I am thinking of is the TV show Dollhouse. No spoilers, but there is a moment in the first season where we flashforward in the story to a future date. The technology used in the show has been abused making for a future that is very different than then original story. In that show, I think the flashforward actually did help to frame the story that the regular show better.

Finally reflections: I don’t know that I personally will be doing anything nonlinear above and beyond the occasional flashback, but it was a good topic to consider to get me thinking of ways to use a different tool.

Coco (Film – 2017) – Review

Coco – courtesy of Disney Pixar

Short, sweet, and to the point – I loved Coco.

I loved what it made me feel even thought I didn’t exactly love how I felt (WARNING: this film will cause feelings, especially if you have experienced familial loss).

I loved the themes, the animation, the music, the characters, and the voice acting.

I loved that it never felt as though the filmmakers were trying to “pander” to anybody or assume the audience was stupid. By that I mean that I, as a non-Mexican who has only limited understanding of what the Day of the Dead represents, never felt like I was being coddled nor that the subject matter was too precious that it couldn’t be shared with “outsiders”. Everything played straight.

But what I think I loved most of all was that this showed that two people/writers/groups/films can have the same story idea (on the surface at least), and yet tell completely different stories.

One of the first things that I learned from Brandon Sanderson via the Writing Excuses podcast was that often, the difference between a good story and bad story lay less in the nature of the idea and more in how that idea is implemented. To paraphrase:

A great idea written by a mediocre author will not be as good as a mediocre idea written by a great author.

The understanding that you don’t have to have the most unique, the most entertaining, the most transformative, or the most artistic “idea” to be successful was liberating.

On the surface, Coco could sound very similar to another animated film from the recent past – Book of Life. Both are about the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead. Both have music as a central theme, and how music relates to the protagonist. Both have the protagonists’ families as being VERY against music and trying to “force” the protagonist into the family business. Both feature visits by the protagonist to the underworld and a need to escape. Both discuss families and forgiveness. Both have prominent participation of Mexican directors, writers, and actors. Both are CGI.

But these movies are as different I think as one could get for having what seem like similar trappings.

And that’s what I love – both Coco and Book of Life are films worth seeing. Both are worth enjoying. And both have place in helping us learn to forgive our families and in teaching us to make room for the rising generations.

Go see Coco.

I’m probably going again.

2017 – Leveling Up

Now that I am nearing the end of NaNoWriMo again, I have been pondering on how I have been able to level up this year as a writer. Sort of a year-end review, a month or so early.

  • Found a local writing community that gets me and who I truly appreciate.
  • Purchased a domain name – personalized website, here I come!
  • Learned how to better write “scene by scene” so that I don’t so bogged down with figuring out transitions which further let me…
  • Learned how to move scenes around to improve flow and arc; not having all that transition baggage to carry helped me see scenes as more self contained.
  • Learned to write faster – I now am able to regularly achieve prose drafts of 1200 words per hour, which for me is blazing fast.
  • Achieve my largest day of writing ever – 3684 words in a day (which again, for me is huge).
  • Completed a second novel – rough draft only, but its a complete draft.
  • Written the most difficult book I’ve ever attempted.

It’s this last one that I feel has been the most interesting to reflect on. During this year listening to my favorite podcast Writing Excuses, something one of the presenters said struck me. He said that every time you finish a story, is should be the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a writer. That this was proof of continuing to level up.

And it’s true. I’ve found myself comparing that idea to my progression as a person, as an employee, as a spouse, as a parent – each year seems to get a little harder or more intense or more complicated. Each year there’s more to contend with, more stress, and just more…well, more. But like in writing progression, never in the same place and never exactly where you expect to find it.

For me, this book project was already going to be the “hardest” because I was trying to write a story with two POVs – everything I’ve attempted so far has been one, so trying to balance two character voices and all the threads that come with that has been a new and difficult experience. And I’ve found that it’s something I will be able to handle better in the future, a skill set I have, but can improve. But for the next story, it may not be that skill set, but another which will make that book the hardest ever.

So, for another NaNoWriMo done and another draft done – I say hurray! Now I’m off to the next one.

Writing Excuses 12.48 – Reflection

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now as a blogging idea.

I’ve wanted to do a “reactions” post for things I learn or view with regards to writing. Sometimes that will take the form of review or breakdown.

But I’ve also just wanted to do short reflections as well – less revised, more direct.

So, I’m going to try to do a reflection post every Monday after listening to the most recent Writing Excuses episode – mostly since that’s when I get to listen to them (commuting to and from work) and it’s an easy thing that will let me get my thoughts down. Not going to worry about summarizing the episode or even commenting on what was said, only insofar as how it made me feel and what it made me think. (I’ve already said more about this than intended, so here goes).

In contemplating a series and how to write them, I was heartened to hear all the presenters say to go find an agent AFTER finishing the first book in a series, which means I haven’t wasted all this time trying to get Betrayed in the best shape I can.

I like the interplay with the presenters about how to think about plotting or planning out a series. And about planning out a first book that is “complete” with series potential.

This episode, there wasn’t anything I found myself outright disagreeing with or thinking had been extensively covered elsewhere.

Also, I’m a fan of the new presenter setup with a “Provo Team” and a “Chicago Team”. The interplay is great and it’s nice getting new view points.