How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating and Cheerfully Meet Deadlines with Room to Spare

We brought home this fresh boxwood wreath to hang on the front door and Jackson immediately inserted himself in it. For those keeping score at home, he’s just shy of eight months old now.

He’s going to be a Big Kitty.

I’m looking forward to the holiday season this year. I have ideas for decorating and even a cool homemade gift for people. I take this to mean that I’m feeling rested and the creativity is flowing. Part of this, I’ve suddenly realized, is because I changed some of my fundamental habits. What’s more is, I change a bad, lifelong habit without really realizing it.

Which is just extraordinary to me.

It’s *hard* to change habits – we all know this. Especially the bad ones. Those junk foods we crave but shouldn’t eat. That wine we shouldn’t drink nearly so much of. The TV shows we waste time on. The internet surfing when we should be working. I imagine each of us could list our top five bad habits – and then write a book on how many times we’ve tried to change them, how and why it ended up not working. (Because if it worked, it wouldn’t still be on the top five list, right?)

So, here’s one of mine: I’m a procrastinator.

Always have been. Back in school, I was the kid who wrote EVERY paper the night before it was due. I never studied until the day before the exam. (Well, the entire weekend in college for brutal classes like organic chemistry.) I once read the Iliad and the Odyssey over a couple of days during reading week before finals. Even with work, I don’t really get going on a deliverable until the deadline was breathing down my neck.

Deadline stress was my eternal motivator.

Which is awful. If you’re like me, you know just how stress-inducing this Very Bad Habit is. The late nights, the great fear that you won’t finish in time or that, if you do finish, the product will sucketh mightily.

I’ve known this about myself pretty much all my life and just hate it. And yet, over and over again, I would fall into the same pattern. Always dealing with the next fire, the next emergency. I always kind of envied the work-ahead people, but never found a way to break this habit.

Until just recently.

You know what worked? I didn’t change that particular habit, I changed other things that just happened to result in me at long last not relying on deadline pressure for motivation.

It’s like I tricked myself into operating differently. Isn’t that amazing?

I’m amazed.

So, what happened is, I had a number of writing deadlines. One was external – my first ever turn-in-your-book-by-this-date publication deadline, which I was determined not to blow – and several internal deadlines, important to me for keeping everything on track.I really, really, really did not want to be finishing that book the night before the deadline. I could not risk that it wouldn’t be as good as I needed it to be. No shortcuts, no crossing fingers, no Hail Mary’s. I wanted lots of time to get it done and get it done right.

So I planned out all my work. I finished another project that I wanted out of the way, to clear time for the one with the external deadline. I planned my dayjob work so that nothing would actually catch on fire enough to divert me. I worked in both measured paces and intense doses, depending on my time and inclination.

This was the amazing part.

I finished both projects early. Like, 7-10 days early. I’ve *never* finished anything early before in my life. Bizarrely, everything else fell into place, too. I’d wanted everything done before Thanksgiving, so I could relax and not worry about ongoing projects. I finished all my day job work by early afternoon Monday – where usually I’m working into the evening before we leave, trying to clear my desk.

At that point, I realized I had nothing on fire. Nothing that I was leaving undone.

It was miraculous.

I’d somehow learned to do my work ahead of time, in an un-stressed, no-deadline-pressure way, all because I’d restructured my other habits.

Now those of you who’ve followed my blog for a while know that I’ve long been a proponent of writing every day. I have my rituals, my good and productive habits. This overall change in my pattern of behavior grew out of that foundation. I suspect that’s key – I didn’t change everything overnight.

But I also think it’s important that I never tried to stop being a procrastinator. I changed the way I work towards a goal.

And that has made all the difference.

(with apologies to Robert Frost)

Creating a Sustainable Writing Schedule

I love little enticing pathways into interior courtyards.

So, there’s this gal who did a workshop at a conference recently and then did a blog post – about how she’s developed a way to write ten-thousand words a day. A 10K Day. I don’t know her at all – I just glanced at her blog post because several of my writer friends were (understandably) really excited about her ideas.

I mean, who doesn’t want to write ten-thousand words a day?

I also saw a magazine cover at the gym proclaiming that Kim Kardashian (I have no idea how to spell that) lost ten pounds in one week, and I could do it, too!

I admit, that sounded pretty damn wonderful, also.

This is where I’m at right now, in the weeks leading up to the RWA National Conference at the end of July. I did some assessing on Saturday and figured out I needed to lose 10 pounds, so my cute outfits fit right, and write 80K words, so I can have a draft of RP2 finished. This works out to 1 pound every 8K words. So clearly I just need to not eat while writing.

Thus the temptation of the Big Leaps is ever-present.

Write 10K in one day? Yes, please! Lose 10 pounds in one week? Sign me up!

And yet, I also know that this leads to the Dark Side. The best weight loss is slow and steady – or the fat just comes right back and is harder to lose. I think we all know this. Which makes me wonder if similar isn’t true about the promise of the 10K Day.

So, here are my caveats. I don’t know this gal. I have absolutely nothing against her. I have nothing against writing fast. I know that there are writers who can and have turned out this much in a day.

What I think is this is not sustainable.

It’s binge writing.

I noticed, in her description of this method that she said she hired a babysitter so she could write 4 to 5 days a week (I forget which) and figured out a way to write that much. She also said this enabled her to write a novel in 3 months instead of 7. So,  a little math tells me that, at 10K per day, it would take 10 days to write a 100K novel (most novels are 85-120K, so that’s a reasonable round average.) If she’s writing 4 days/week, then she’d have the novel written in 2 1/2 weeks. Where did the other 8 weeks come from?

I’m presuming that’s revision time. (And maybe she covered this – I confess, that I skimmed.)

Some people like to work this way. Candy Havens does a Fast Draft class, where you draft a novel in two weeks and then do Revision Hell for two weeks. This works for her and for some others, which is great. I’m not sure if she feels the novel is ready to go after that, or if it takes more polishing after that.

But here’s another model.

If you take two months to draft a novel, that’s 60 days to write 100K, or about 1667 words/day. Most writers can do about 1,000 words/hour. (Your mileage may vary.) So, in two hours a day, you can draft a novel, spend a month revising it and still have a novel in three months.

Sure, it takes discipline and adherence to schedules, like we talked about yesterday, but so does healthy weight loss. And, to me, this is a healthy approach to a sustainable schedule.

Change your eating habits, work out every day, get plenty of sleep and water, and the weight will come off.

Develop good writing habits, write every day, get plenty of sleep and water, and you’ll have a novel.

It’s not great on a magazine cover, but it works.


Buffing Up

This is not how Baltimore looks this morning. No, Baltimore is moist and grey. I can’t see the rain, but people are going by with umbrellas. I’m missing my Santa Fe blue skies.

(Yeah, okay, we had a couple weeks of not so blue – here’s my photo contrasting with the same flowers against a stormy sky from a few days ago.)

So, as long-time blog-gobblers know, I’ve been a proponent of the 1K/day. It worked for me to try to write 1,000 words each day, which I do before I start the day job. On Twitter, someone started the #1K1hr, where write either 1,000 words or for an hour, whichever comes first. That’s kind of fun to do, because groups of people sprint together. However, I find that the time pressure interferes and I don’t enjoy the storytelling as much. Then this one gal had to start bragging about doing #2k1hr, saying that 1K is for wimps, which felt all competitive and awful to me.

There’s a reason I didn’t do team sports in school.

Um, besides the fact that I was a klutz and no one would have me. But, funny, no one ever yelled at me to read more books! Faster!

(Now I’m picturing the librarians like the football coaches, with track suits and whistles, veins bulging in their temples. “You’re just not putting effort into it, Kennedy! I want to see 100 pages in thirty minutes – now, go!”)

At any rate, I think I mentioned at some point here that I’ve changed my approach a bit, with drafting The Middle Princess. When I was in my long spell of revising, it naturally didn’t work for me to shoot for 1K and the then switch to the day job. So I was revising for two hours. That worked fine. And I did it long enough that working for two hours became a habit. (And habit becomes ritual which becomes sacred and then you’re golden.) So I started drafting for two hours. My goals are all set up (on spreadsheets) for 1K/day, but now, once I reach my 1K, I keep going until my two hours are up.

And wow.

I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’ve been amazingly productive. Like 10,000 to 12,000 words per week productive. Plus it feels good and not draining or exhausting. I’m at over 60K on Middle Princess and closing in on the Act II climax. I’m a week ahead of my self-imposed deadline.

Which is good, because I’m braced not to get anything much done while I’m on day job travel.

But, maybe that will change, too.


Why It Has to Be Every Day

When newer authors ask me for advice, which they sometimes do, apparently laboring under the notion that I know what I’m doing, they often ask if they really truly have to write every day.

It’s funny, because I remember asking that very same question, in the neighborhood of 15 years ago. I was at a writers’ weekend retreat and someone asked our esteemed visiting writer guy about his writing schedule. He said he got up every day at 5am and wrote for two hours. That he had to. to get it done. I ended up being the voice of “really? truly, EVERY day?” He said, with rare exceptions, really, truly.

I didn’t want to hear it.

It’s not welcome news.

Someone said on Twitter just the other day that she was considering getting up at 4:30am to get her writing done, but was dragging her feet. I replied that I did it for two years and it worked. She said, wasn’t I exhausted? I said, yes, at first. Then I got used to it. It was the only time of day I could be sure to write every day and it totally worked.

I’m not convinced that, for true writing productivity – especially creating something new – anything else does work.

I rediscover this periodically. This last week I’ve been getting back into drafting The Middle Princess. After an extended spell of revisions on several different works, I’m composing again. I’d gotten about 26K into this novel when I had to set her aside. I figured she was well on her way, with good momentum. She’d wait for me.

Oh no no no.

Frankly, for the last week? She’s been a sulky bitch.

That’s the hardest part of writing, I think. When every word put down is a day’s labor. When you work for two hours and get 250 words. Being in that place is the polar opposite of everything we love best about writing. It’s the 40 years in the desert. It’s traversing the Fire Swamp, only less interesting. And like those travails, I truly believe there is only one way through it.

Keep going.

It’s tempting to think, oh, something’s wrong – that’s why it’s not working. Or, I’ve written myself into a corner, that’s why I feel stuck. Even if those things are true, you still have to keep writing. Delete and write. Or rework and write. Or skip and write. But the one answer is always the same.

Keen readers will note which thing that is.

And yes. It has to be every day.

Finally, yesterday, after a week of agonizing through my 1K/day workout, the story started to flow again. It’s like the ice breaking up on the river. I’m not riding the rapids in glee yet, but at least I’m not chipping away at frozen stuff.


Got It for a Song

I did lower body weights at the gym this morning.

Usually when I weight-lift, I don’t listen to music. The treadmill absolutely requires my aerobic track to keep me distracted. For weight-lifting, though, I’m counting and not fighting the certain despair that I’ll never catch my breath again.

Today though, Air Force Guy had the TV up really loud with awful news about Libya. Since I have a strict policy about not depressing myself with news about events I can’t affect, I jumped up from the adductor machine and grabbed the headphones.

Since I was mid-count, rather than searching out my weights playlist (why do I have one if I never use it? Hmm) I just clicked play. This one song that my long-time friend, Kev, sent me came on.

Because I could, I played that one song over and over. I love to do this. I can listen to the same song probably 50 times in a row. Something, I’ve discovered, the people around me don’t enjoy so much.

Go figure.

Its an emotional song that strikes me on many levels. As some songs do, this one makes me want to write a story about it. I’ve never actually written a story from a song, but I think I might this time. As I kept clicking the back button to hear it just one more time (there’s a way to put it on repeat, right? one day I should learn to maximize my iPod use), the story played out in my head, snippets of conversation. I could see the opening line, the penultimate scene.

It could be a great book.

Yesterday, I worked on two projects. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I’ve been musing over whether I can move two writing projects forward at the same time. I’m a monogamous gal by nature, mainly because I’m simply not inclined to cheat. The thing I’m in love with is fine by me. It occurs to me now that this is the same aspect of my character that likes to listen to the same song over and over and over. Apple pie for the rest of my life? Sure! Still, with writing, I’d like to get more going.

So, yesterday, I clocked off the Internet for my usual two hours. (Yes, I’m weak and cannot stop myself from clicking if it’s there to be clicked.) I wrote my 1K on the new novel, The Middle Princess. For the remaining 45 minutes, I worked on Sapphire revisions, from the editorial notes that came in this weekend.

And it worked!

Normally I’m not allowed to deviate from a current project, but since that experiment worked, I might try writing up a little of this morning’s story – just enough to keep it alive and kicking.

Four Reasons I Don’t Do NaNoWriMo

The moon behind the clouds last night. I nearly photoshopped out all the little points of light. I suspect they’re artifact – bits of reflected light – but I thought we could pretend they’re stars. On a cloudy night. See? We can have it all.

I am a fiction-writer, after all.

The writer Harley May sometimes roasts author photos, for her own twisted amusement, mostly. She roasted mine today. If you care for a good laugh, check it out.

I seem to be cutting a wide swath this week. Linda Grimes’ blog post today is a result of me Double-Dog Daring her. And Marcella Burnard’s blog post yesterday talked about a conversation we had about setting aside writing time. Must be my karma lately.

Either that or I spend way too much time yakking to people online. No, no – that can’t be it.

Apropos of that, a number of people have asked me if I’m doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month). I’ve blogged about this before, but I won’t point you to those posts because I’ve been kind of cranky on the topic in the past. Because, no, I don’t like NaNoWriMo.

A lot of people do. They love the feeling of community, the outside deadline to draft 50,000 words in one month. Several people got their first serious start at regularly scheduled writing through the project, so they have great associations.

I think I’ve mentioned plenty of times here why it doesn’t work for me, but enough people have asked that I thought it’s worth mentioning again. I’m not one of those organized bullet-point bloggers, but today I do have a list of my Four Reasons I Don’t Do NaNoWriMo.

1. It’s not about developing a regular writing schedule

NaNoWriMo is about a one-month blast of a hell of a lot of writing. With some exceptions, most writers, even those who get to write full time, don’t write that much in one month. People who commit to NaNoWriMo are making a pledge to do whatever it takes to meet the goal. That can be useful, but it’s important to me to fence off that regular writing time, write every day and make steady progress. If I stick to 1K/day, I can write 365,000 words in one year. I’m not meeting that goal yet, but it’s what I’m shooting for.

2. Too much pressure

Because I don’t yet get to write full-time, I’ve found that 1K/day is about all I can handle and still be worth my salary. I can do more than that for short periods of time – I can write 5-7K in one day, when under pressure – but it drains me. I don’t know that I could keep that up even if I didn’t work full-time. Writing 50K words in November means 1667 words/day for thirty days in a row. That kind of pressure makes me crazy and, believe me, you don’t need me more crazy.

3. It doesn’t match my own method

To write that many words in that short a time means fast-drafting. That’s writing as fast as you can with no editing, no careful crafting. The idea is that writing fast removes barriers and frees you to simply write. There are many jokes that December and January are novel-finishing and editing months. That kind of drafting can be really great if you like to write that way, or don’t know yet how you like to write. I’m not much into fast drafting. I write reasonably quickly when I’m drafting, but I do go back and edit and reshape as I go. I produce pretty clean copy when I’m done. This is the method I’ve developed over about 25 years. It works well for me. Sometimes if I’m blocked, I’ll try the vomit/fast draft approach to get through the wall. Otherwise, I’m happy with how I work. I believe it’s important to find what works for you and, like nailing down a regular writing schedule, stick with it.

4. I’m a holiday girl

Okay, I get in trouble for saying this, but I’m endlessly amused that a guy started NaNoWriMo and picked November partly because of the Thanksgiving holiday. I’m sorry guys, but I think Thanksgiving ends up being four empty days for a lot of you and a whole bunch of work for a lot of gals. I know it doesn’t apply to everyone, but how many households have you been in when the men are watching football and napping on Thanksgiving and the women are cooking? I love Thanksgiving. I love cooking for it. But I spend a LOT of time preparing for it. And when I’m not doing the labor of love, I’m spending time with family. The day after Thanksgiving I get to spend shopping and having lunch with my mom and my stepsister, Hope. It’s a very fun day for me that I look forward to, but it’s not a day for catching up on word count. All of that is fine, because I have my regular schedule and I take holiday from it, just as I do from my day job.

So, that’s my NaNoWriMo Manifesto. (heh) But all of you digging in to do it, best of luck and full steam ahead. I’ll provide the pumpkin pie.

A Thousand Words

The desert four o’clocks are in full bloom, lighting up the landscape with their intense purple.

Turns out that the New Mexico Tourism Department is running a photo contest. I think I’ll enter, just for kicks. (No, not with this photo.) I can enter five, so if any of you have opinions on the pics you like best, let me know! I put all my best photos on the blog here, so I’ll likely pick from those.

I don’t expect you to troll through the entire blog archive, unless you’re really excited to to it. The New Mexico photos start almost exactly one year ago, which is a serendipitous coincidence, with I’m Just Wild About Harry in June 2009.

After that week, you’d have to skip into July, for the house-hunting trip beginning with Our Eight Lovely Finalists (which are only pictures of houses). Then it’s to August and Dances with Quail.

Yeah, I got sucked into reading those old posts. Such with the navel-gazing.

You’d be well-advised just to look through the photos. Or not. BUT, if someone suggests a photo and it wins anything, I’ll give you a prize. A gift-certificate to Ten Thousand Waves or to the indie bookstore of your choice.

See? It’s not always about writing.

Although, I can’t help but notice that the saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I write at least a thousand words a day. That means one photograph is the same as writing my 1K?

Yeah, not so much.

We need to reevaluate that saying.

A Single Step.

These yellow columbine are growing with crazed bushiness right now. I’m thinking I need to plant some rose bushes behind them, in the corner just there.

Pink ones.

Maybe a climber with a trellis. I still haven’t put up any of the trellises I brought from the old house. Now I must be more ready to deal because I’m thinking about them and about climbing roses.

You know I’m big on the one-step-at-a-time thing. I can’t deal with everything at once, but I can get things set up one by one.

The journey of 10,000 miles and all that.

This weekend I went to the LERA meeting (Land of Enchantment Romance Authors) and Gabi Stevens confessed immediately “I always read your blog, but I never comment. I feel really bad about it.”

Which made me laugh. (Hi Gabi!)

And, of course, I told her there’s absolutely no onus to comment. It’s always fun to get comments, but I must admit, one of my blog-reading peeves are posts that are clearly set up only to elicit comments. You know the ones, little more than a remark and a question. To me, that’s less like writing and more like soliciting.

Gabi, whose first book, The Wish List, came out from Tor in May, with two more to follow (I know – sweet deal), said well, yes, but she’s trying to get better at the social media thing and she knows commenting is part of that and that’s her next step.

Fair enough.

(I offered to help her figure it out, so let’s see if she comments with a link to her site. If not, we need to nag her.)

I returned from the meeting feeling fired up to finish Sterling, which is all one can really ask for from a writers meeting. Matt McDuffie, who teaches screenwriting at University of New Mexico, and apparently has little internet presence, gave an energizing presentation on story structure. Nothing I didn’t know before, but still stimulating. Listening to him talk, I could trace my story with it and feel where the next steps are going. I know I’m coming up on the crisis, the Act II climax, though it’s taking a bit longer to get there than I thought. The way it’s looking now, what I thought would be a 90K book looks like it’ll come out around 113K, which is fine. I’m on track for that.

Which is good, because KAK came back from her meeting (lots of RWA groups meet on the second Saturday of the month – kind of an odd synchronicity), where Bob Mayer, who does the whole warrior-writer thing and has and exhaustive internet presence, got her fired up about accountability and goals.

And it turns out he’s a fan of spreadsheets, too. So there.

So between KAK wanting to synchronize our goals and my screenwriting induced re-evaluation of my story arc, I discovered I had to up my daily wordcount goal if I’m going to make it by mid-July.

So no more 1K/day. I’m upping to 1850/day. I made it yesterday, pretty easily. We’ll see if I can sustain it during the work week, too. The story is moving faster now, so that helps. Less time staring at the screen wondering what happens next. If I’m writing well, I can write about 1K/hour, so this should be doable.

One day at a time.

My Number One Pal

I’m working on being kinder to myself.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not for me. I get in these modes where I find I’m flogging myself for more work, faster, better. This is exacerbated by my community of writers who focus heavily on word count, some doing 4,000 words per day, another doing 20 pages per day.

I’ve found that I can reliably produce 1,000 words per day. I can do more than that sometimes, but not for more than, say, a week or do. But 1K works for me, what with the full-time career and other commitments.

Also, for the past year or so, I’ve been writing this blog. I started out trying to post every day. I didn’t make that goal. I posted 247 times in 2009. That’s 67.7% for those keeping score at home. Almost spot-on 2/3. And you know how the song goes, two out of three ain’t bad, right?

Fairly early on, I began taking Sundays off from the blog. Day of rest and all that. I’d like to tell you I spend the time studying philosophy or reflecting on my spiritual journey, but really it’s more about obtaining fancy coffee drinks and lolling. When I figure out how to make a religion out of this, you all can sign up.

Most days, I post to the blog first. I exercise, then try to keep the blog post to 1/2 hr. I started out trying to keep it to 300-350 words, but I find normally I write about 500-600. That seems to be where I end up. Then I switch to my book or WIP.

Work in Progress, doncha know.

I never called it that before I hooked up with the romanceys. The lit types always refer to their book or their collection, whether it’s done or not. It’s an interesting distinction. For the lit types, it’s always a book, pubbed or not. For the romanceys, it’s a WIP until it’s pubbed. Or maybe contracted.

Anyway, until just recently, I only counted my 1K for working on my book. And then I realized that, not unlike calling a book a WIP, I was devaluing what I write here. As if this is not part of my writing life, not part of keeping the writing juices flowing and honing my skills. Which it absolutely is.

Otherwise, it’s not worth doing.

So I revamped my Progress Count spreadsheet to include my blog word count at the beginning of this week. What? Of course, I have a spreadsheet, in which I track progress on everything I’m working on. Yes, it has formulas and calculates completion dates from today’s date. I celebrate this slice of Virgo in me and let her do these things to keep her happy.

This is why I know my blog tends to be 500-600 words. Which, when I get to count it, means I’m already more than halfway to my daily goal by the time I finish posting.

Which makes me feel good.

Then, when I turn to my book — right now it’s a novella — I’m already halfway there. And interestingly, I put in 1K words on that every day except for one, when I stopped at 891 because work called and I never it made it back. Right now I’m only 135 words shy of making 7,000 words for the week. I’ll likely do more than that, since I’ll work on the novella today.

People often refer to the carrot and the stick method of motivating themselves, usually meaning a combination of treat and punishment. This is actually a misinterpretation of the original saying, which referred to the practice of tying a carrot to the end of a stick and dangling it before a donkey’s nose to keep him moving forward. In that scenario, the carrot is forever out of reach.

With this approach, I gave myself credit, and carrots, early on in the process. And, son of a gun, it worked!

And the writing? It’s good, too.

Travel weary

I’m tempted to say I failed.

I certainly didn’t succeed in following my intentions, so that amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?

I really wanted to be able to continue to post to the blog while I was on work travel. Clearly I didn’t. You can see my pleased, self-satisfied (a number of people have used that phrase to describe me lately and I’m wondering how to take it) post from the plane on Monday. Then nothing nothing nothing for the next four days. I got home at about 1 o’clock in the morning Thursday night, slept in and worked all day catching up. No 1K words, no blog posts. So much for resolutions.

I really thought I might post pithy observations about being in Dover, Delaware. About their coastal farmlands and abandoned malls. But I didn’t. Penelope Trunk says your day job can’t suck away your creative energy, but I’m not sure I agree. When I’m on my work trips, they drain me dry. I get back to the hotel in the evening with nothing left. Often I can’t even summon the energy just to read. Only inane television can hold my attention until I fall asleep. I don’t understand why.

But, as I’ve broken into this new schedule gradually, so I’ll try with this. I’m home this week, then off to Raleigh/Durham the week after. Cross your fingers and look for the daily blogs!