stevemedcroft.com
13Jan/190

Design your ideal work habit

Can we program our brains like a computer to do the work that will get us to our dreams?

Create a repeatable daily process to get your most important work done

What were you put on this earth to do? What is your purpose? What do you want to accomplish with your precious, albeit short, life? And are you doing the work you know you need to do every day to realize your dream?

If it only took intelligence or raw talent to achieve our goals, success would be so much easier. But because (except for the extremely fortunate) success requires that we apply ourselves and work really hard for our dreams, they seem out of reach at times.

My biggest challenge is that even though I know what I need to do every day to pursue my lifetime goals (write, publish, and promote my work), I battle with myself to get my work done. I wake every day with the intention to write, with a long list of ideas and even professional writing commitments, then I open my phone, check email, look at what's new on YouTube or Netflix and before I know it, my intention is buried under a day's worth of distractions. Without a process to get the necessary work done every day, reaching my goals is taking a very long time.

When I avoid those distractions and lean into a block of writing time, I am actually productive. I use the Pomodoro method to work in twenty-five-minute bursts of intense focus. I can make 2,000 words of progress on my novel, stay well-ahead of my copywriting deadlines, even draft, polish, and post an entire blog post in one two or three-hour early-morning writing session. So long as I write before I do anything else that day.

I could blame the world for my lack of progress -- it is filled with distraction after all (damn you high-speed Internet access!). I could blame my family (we all need to eat and have that pesky roof over our heads after all). I could blame my job (why do they need actual results for the money they invest in me?). But none of those things are the reasons I haven't achieved my writing goals.

No one is going to hand your dream to you

No one else in the world cares if we accomplish my personal goals. It affects no one. At the end of time, what we chose to accomplish or not accomplish with my flicker of our lifetimes won't make a difference to how it all ends. I alone need to accomplish what I feel I am on this earth to accomplish. I need to do it because what I am asking to happen only affects my life's experience.

It comes back to intention. I talk a good game, but unless I follow up my intention with actual work, I will always fall short of my ambitions. Successful people apply their talents and skills in clear, repeatable, and consistent ways. Accomplished people have a process to follow so they get things done. They are disciplined. They show up and do their work. They learn and iterate They stay their course.

Since intention is not enough for me to avoid my own productivity traps, I need to create a system, a process to make sure that I do the right things for myself every day. But how? How do you do create a work process that overcomes your lazy habits and programming?

This tattoo on my forearm is a reminder to work every day toward my writing dreams.

The epiphany for me was to think of my mind as a computer. In computing, algorithms (software code) are used to make computers perform all kinds of repeatable tasks for us. The computer is not smart or talented or focused, it is simply a machine executing the tasks programmed into it. Computers aren't subject to self-doubt and distraction, they just perform the commands given them. What I wanted for myself was a computer-style program I could run in my brain every day, an algorithm, a set of instructions to execute in a repeatable loop that led to a specific result (writing work output).

Re-writing your brain's programming to get shit done

To create the most-efficient work process, we first have to know ourselves. What time of day works best for us (are you mentally freshest in the morning or does your creativity flow best after everyone else is asleep)? How much time do we need to make progress (Can you spare an hour? Two? Five? What feels like the right amount of time you should spend on your work each day?) What environment suits you best (solitude and silence in the perfect home office, or the background bustle of a coffee shop).

We also need to know how we work. Are you task-oriented (make plans and lists and derive satisfaction from checking off tasks)? Are you goal motivated (thrive when there's a tangible reward at the end of the work)? Are you social (work best within a collaboration with lots of feedback) or introverted (need a cone of silence around you to work)? We need to design our process around our best flow. For me, it's tasks. I am most at peace when I get to check off a big list of things I needed to get done. I also enjoy the process of planning; set a goal, create a strategy for accomplishing the goal, create the tactical plan (tasks) to achieve the goal.

The final piece of the puzzle is to anticipate the potential barriers there are to the sustainability of your program and prepare in advance to manage them. For me, I needed to thwart what Steven Pressfield in The War of Art calls The Resistance; the inner voice that is constantly pulling us away from our creative work. I wanted a process that was so pre-planned, so clear a set of clear instruction, that it required me only to sit down at a certain time and follow it without overthinking. I want a recipe to follow, a formula, a paint-by-numbers approach to writing.

With my intention set, the best working time of day established, an understanding that I need task orientation, a calculation of the hours I can dedicate to writing, and an acceptance that the Pomodoro method is an ideal focus method for me, I wrote the following algorithm to reprogram my brain:

<PRIME - BEFORE BED> - Before I go to bed at night, I review my master writing task list (a OneNote page with lists of all my writing ideas). This master writing list contains every writing idea I have. Whenever I have a new writing idea, I add it to this list. They include copywriting and marketing assignments I need to deliver to clients, blog post ideas, article ideas for a personal project I'm developing, as well as fiction projects. The list could contain first-draft writing, editing, polishing, publishing tasks, any kind of writing work that leads to finished writing projects. Each night I set a specific intention for the next day to focus on five 'on deck' priority projects, sorted in order. Before I go to bed, I make sure I know exactly what writing I'll be doing in the morning, even typing up rough, bullet-point outlines. Planning the night before takes away all thinking in the morning. All I have to do is show up, put my fingers on the keyboard, set my timer, and write what the list says is next.

<START = WAKE UP> - This is the logical first step in my work block. I set Wake Up as the first step in the routine so that when I go to bed the night before, I know that when I wake up, I am immediately executing the writing algorithm. If I don't start at wake up, then I might allow myself to get pulled into distraction.

<MAKE THE BED> - I make my bed when I get up in the morning to declare to my mind that sleep time is over. It is a psychological act. I am also immediately priming myself by checking off a task that the time to complete tasks has begun.

<SHOWER and DRESS> - Again, this is psychological. I could wait to shower and dress until after the writing session is done, but by taking care of it first, I approach the writing desk ready for the rest of day. It becomes one less thing I have to stress over. Showering before working also gives me a few extra minutes to come fully awake, more time for my brain to prime for what's coming. And by avoiding any media, I give my mind fifteen minutes to ponder what I already know (because I prepared the night before) are the first writing assignments for the day.

<COFFEE> - I take a couple of minutes to make coffee before I sit down to the computer. Ritual? Need for caffeine? I don't even know at this point. All I know is that I like coffee, I draw satisfaction from the rhythm, and routine of making it, and by doing it before I start writing, I don't break my writing momentum by doing it halfway through my writing session.

<WRITING LOOP> - I use the Pomodoro method to focus when it's time to work. I've written about this before, but essentially the Pomodoro method is a system for removing all distractions. You set a timer for twenty-five minutes, work with complete focus on one task until the timer goes off, take a five-minute break, then start the timer for another Pomodoro. My first Pomodoro always starts with a handwritten page in my notebook/journal (about whatever is on my mind). For me, this opens the creative flow. I then switch straight to the first task on the 'on deck' writing list. I do five pomodoros in an unbroken block, working only on tasks from the master writing list. During the five-minute breaks, I get up and move around; let my mind work on the writing and let the blood in my body flow. I reward myself with five lovely marks in my notebook to record the session. And I get to check off any completed projects on the master writing task; both blissful, satisfying feelings.

<END SESSION> - I finish my writing algorithm with five minutes of filtering the email in my inbox. Checking and filtering email before I leave the house for work lets me commute without email stress. If I didn't have a plan to get to it, email would be on my mind all morning. I'll wonder if there is an important message waiting that must be taken care of right away (there ever is, but until I know for sure, the possibility creates anxiety)? By knowing that I have a specific time to check email before I move on to anything else for the day, I hold off that anxiety. My mind is at ease simply because I know I am going to get to it.

The whole routine takes me three hours from the moment I roll out of bed to the moment I walk out the door for work. That means I need to get up at 5:30 to leave the house at 8:30, which is not ideal for a non-morning person like me, but by sticking to this routine, I have had the least stress and most productive writing month of my life.

3Jan/190

The Writer’s Essential Toolbox

Stephen King at his writing desk (sometime in the 80's)

I love looking at photographs of famous writer's desks. Seeing the way another creative person works is pruriently fascinating. I can't be the only one. Websites dedicated to sharing famous writer's workspaces exist. Hashtags exist (#writersdesk). Kurt Vonnegut's wife Jill Krementz produced a book of photographs of writer's working spaces (the Writers Desk).

These images are like porn for a writer. Is Stephen King's desk cluttered or organized? Did Hemmingway write in pencil or typewriter? Does Dean Koontz use notecards to plot stories? It is so interesting to look at these images and try to glean some hint, some epiphany that can help my own journey as a writer.

But for all I absorb this kind of imagery, obsession over how other people write is just another way we put off getting to work ourselves. The truth is that I have long settled into my own way of working. Looking for the silver bullet to getting writing done in photographs of other writer's workspaces is just another form of procrastination. I have what I need; a simple set of tools that are essential to me sitting down and getting my writing work done every day. Yes, I have a desk (three actually; one at each day-job engagement I have and one half of the big kitchen table at home). But the desk does not determine the flow of my work. I prefer to be mobile. I write wherever my butt and my brain happen to be when it's time to get the writing done. My workspace is virtual. My workspace is this set of tools:

Good, old-fashioned pen and paper: The most basic tool in my kit is a notepad and pen. To be a writer (to communicate in the medium of language), we don't need anything more than this. Paper and a pencil. A typewriter and a clean sheet of copy paper. A notepad and a pen. I keep my version of these tools close by at all times because even though I am digitally organized, as a writer, capturing ideas and thoughts at the moment they occur is critical to my writing process. So long as you have a pen and some paper close by, you have the most essential tools a writer needs to get started on any project. Mainly because I thrive under the stability of routine and known things, I am a bit particular on which notepad and pen I use; soft-sided, medium-sized, lined notepads from an Italian company called Legami (because I just fucking love them) and a LAMY Studio fountain pen with a medium nib and blue/black ink.

Any old computer: You can't post an article on the Internet using a pad and paper or submit a handwritten manuscript to a publisher or client, so a computer is essential to writing. I use the Microsoft Surface Pro because it's light, it has cellular service built in (which gives me Internet access anywhere whether there is WiFi available or not) and has a strong enough battery that I can work 5-6 hours without recharging. You don't need something fancy though. The great thing about being a writer (compared to say, a photographer or graphic designer) is that we need very little computing power. I've written on an iPad, at a library desktop computer, on whatever company machine was assigned to me in my day jobs, even my smartphone. Anything from the cheapest used laptop to the best credit will buy you will work.

A word processor: We lived in blessed times. There are so many options for word-processing software, that there is the perfect option for everyone out there. It almost doesn't matter which one you choose. For my work, I use one of four.

  • Microsoft Word - I use MS Word for my professional writing (copywriting, marketing pieces, and blog posts for business clients). It's the most widely-used word processor in business, so I can supply finished work in Word to any client without the problem of them being able to access it.
  • Scrivener - Have you heard of Scrivener? (What? You haven't? And you call yourself a writer?) Don't worry, I hadn't heard of it either, even after years of pursuing writing. Scrivener is a stand-alone word-processor and writing-organization system that is perfect for long projects (like novels or non-fiction books). Whereas Word is organized as a single document for each written work, Scrivener is organized as folders containing individual written files that make up longer work (like chapters in a book). As well as all the word-processing functions a writer needs, Scrivener provides tools to create outlines, synopsizes, and manage research material (among other things). It even provides the ability to output work in a variety of formats (so you can output formatted files for printing or publishing on all the available platforms). There's more but I can't do it justice in this small space. Check out Scrivener for yourself if you're serious about writing in long form.
  • WordPress - I built my personal website and my humanbeing.earth project both using the free web-publishing platform from WordPress.org. Its built-in editor is perfect for writing web posts. You can dynamically move blocks of text around to get the right flow, add images, videos, links, and every other element you need to make your work sing online. WordPress offers the ability to create and save drafts, to publish immediately, or schedule posts to go live at a specific future time. It manages versions. It's a powerful writing tool. I draft right into WordPress for content that is going to live on either website.
  • Google Docs - For personal journals or documents that I want to share, I use Google Docs instead of Word. It's free, works like a charm, allows you to create, edit, and share documents whether or not you have an Internet connection, or not. If you don't have access to any of the above and just need a word processor, I recommend Google Docs.
This is it - everything I need to do my writing.

Grammarly: When I started writing, just out of high school in the mid (ahem) 1980's, you spell checked and added diversity to your writing using a printed dictionary and thesaurus. Computer-based world processing, with spell check and grammar functions built in, saved us from that laborious task and made the printed reference all but obsolete. The spell check and grammar functions within Word (and other software tools) are robust and you don't need much more to put out clean copy, but I have recently adopted a tool called Grammarly and recommend it highly. Grammarly is a service you subscribe to that then plugs into your browser and word-processors like Microsoft Word which provides running guidance to help you perfect your written language skills. beyond basic spelling and grammar checking, Grammarly provides you with robust feedback on sentence structure and language-flow problems. You also get data on the kinds of mistakes you make repeatedly (words you use more often than needed, the fact that I miss that serial comma almost every time). Grammarly has been like getting critique-group or editorial feedback on my work as I write. While I don't follow every piece of advice the service gives up, but it informs my writing continuously and I feel my work is stronger after running it through Grammarly than before.

A camera: I know this is counter-intuitive, but every writer needs a basic camera. Why? I write short pieces for web publication on my own websites and to post on third-party publishing platforms like Medium and LinkedIn. Web articles need an image to draw the reader's attention. Sure, you can source images online (like the one at the top of this article), but to avoid rights and usage problems, you're better off using a picture you take yourself (like the one in the middle of this article). The good news is you probably already have the camera you need - your smartphone. Modern smartphone camera's take excellent pictures, plenty good enough for online publication. If you're writing for print, the images need to be of higher resolution. When I need something better, I have a fixed-lens Fuju X100T (the digital equivalent of the 35mm reporter's camera). I use GIMP and DarkTable, both free equivalents of Photoshop and Lightroom, for photo editing.

A process: The best tool I developed for my writing was a simple, repeatable process for getting my work done. I know this is outside of the realm of the what's-on-your-writing-desk nature of this article, but having a work process is just as essential to my writing as a laptop or the right software. We all struggle with getting our writing done. We procrastinate. We get busy with all the other aspects of life. It's hard to put your butt in your seat and fingers on the keyboard some days, but the only true way to progress as a writer is to write. You have to put down words, and put those words out into the world, to get better. I am old enough and wise enough to know where I am weak about writing. I am weak if I let myself get distracted before I work (when I check email, when I go to the office first, when I check in with the news). I am weak when I tell myself I'll write later, after I just do this one thing (or ten things) first. I am weak if I think I'll really, really focus on writing tomorrow. I am best and happiest when I write first thing in the morning, before I do anything else that day. I am strong when I use to the pomodoro method to focus. I am strong when I take a minute to start a writing session with a handwritten warm-up page in my notebook. I am strong when I already have a plan, a task list of writing that needs to be done. To take advantage of where I am strong, and to defend against where I am weak, I have developed an algorithm than I run every morning to get my writing done. I think of myself like a computer, a machine that just has to follow this programmed routine. All I have to do is show up to my writing space and follow the program. No thinking, no negotiation with myself, just show up and follow the instructions. The program works like magic. The writing gets done and I go off into the rest of the day with the sense of satisfaction that the most important thing i want to accomplish in life was done that day. So long as I execute this three-hour morning routine every day, I trust that time and intention will equal a great amount of progress in my writing.

Feedback: The last essential item in my minimalist writing toolbox is feedback. I identify myself as a writer, a human being who uses writing to communicate thoughts, concepts, knowledge, ideas, and stories to the world. I write just for myself occasionally, but my ambition is that my writing is to be read. It is meant to have an audience. Writing is, like Stephen King says, telepathic communication, transmissions of thought from one person to another. I put down thoughts from my mind. Someone reads them and inputs them into their mind. For writing to be effective, the original thought must transfer as comprehensivley as possible. The only way for a writer to know if their work is being received as intended is to hear back from the reader. What did they think of the message? Did they understand it? Did it lead them to wonder, to think, to be inspired? Or was it confusing or uninetresting? Feedback is the only way to develop as a writer.

That's it. Those are my writing essentials, my virtual version of a writer's desk. If I boiled my writing life down to the bare essentials, everything with a purpose and nothing unnecessary, these are the things I need to be a writer.

What about you? What's your desk? What tools are essential to your writing?

1Dec/180

Decluttering your smartphone

I love technology. I always have. My first cell phone was a Motorolo 8000, the infamous 'brick' phone, large as a masonry block and just as heavy. My first personal computer the IBM AT 8800, replete with a green screen and floppy disks. I am old enough to see the evolution of most of the technology that we take for granted today, and some that used to seem futuristic; smartphones, personal computers, drones, robots, self-driving cars, etc.

Technology has improved our productivity and enhanced out lives. So many formerly analog tasks and media have been replaced by technology. But, along with all that productivity have come distractions. Apps designed to entertain us, to make us more productive, to encourage us to play and consume, gobble up an overwhelming amount of time. We are caught in a loop of self-perpetuating, addictive usage.

Like many of us, my biggest time-sucking technological device is the smartphone. Never more than an arms length away from me (even when sleeping), this powerful, candy-bar sized computer is a constant source of distraction and mindless consumption. I both love it and feel like I could not live life without it. We constantly check to see if there is a new email, text, or instant message for us to respond to. We fiddle with Facebook to get a dose of what-did-I-miss in a group of other people's lives. We scroll for fifteen minutes on Instagram at pretty images promoting other people's vision for their life. Twitter. Oh, God. Since Donald J. Trump became president, I would hover on Twitter in a constant state of anxiety expecting to read at any moment that society had collapsed. I log in to the websites of CNN and NPR and ABC News and NBC News and the New York Times and Fox News, not really sure what I'm hoping to read, but rattled nonetheless. Oh, I also YouTube and stream Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime on my phone. I'm stressed out just writing down the list of all the ways I use the smartphone mindlessly.

These uses of technology make us consumers, products of someone else's business, rather than a self-directed individuals using amazing new technology to empower our own lives. I hate myself for the addictive powerlessness I feel sometimes when I throw my precious life away on this device.

How can we get control our toxic use of technology? Should we get rid of our phones? Switch to a model with a limited display, one that only makes phone calls and maybe, if we're lucky, text messages? That's not really practical, right? Technology is not the problem. Our use of it is the problem. The manipulation of us as users by the manufacturer's and app developers is the problem. So we don't need to remove personal technology from our lives. We just need to minimize it.

Decluttering the smart phone

At its core, the smartphone is a computer that runs applications. Each application serves a specific function. Some are powerful computing tools, like email, which allow me to connect with people on my terms. Some are powerful personal tools; my banking app that allows me to oversee and manage my business and personal finances. Some are powerful information and entertainment tools; my Kindle reader that gives me access to all my reading material. Regaining control over the smartphone and turning it back into a tool for productivity is about curating apps and organizing the way you interact with device.

First, this means setting up the options on the phone to take away the things developers use to encourage overuse, like notifications, sounds, and available times. It then means sorting applications into three categories; keep, throw away, and consider.

The 'keep' applications are those that are essential to your everyday life, that lead to productivity, are valuable, and bring you joy. The calculator function is an example of this. I use it regularly and having access to a calculator on my phone means I don't have to possess a physical calculator. Same with the phone function itself. I wouldn't want to not be able to make and take phone calls. You want your keep applications readily accessible.

The throw-away applications are apps we never use and don't need. These could be apps installed by default with the device, apps we install to get access to a certain service, games we never play, or apps installed to support memberships and rewards points programs we can access another way. Get rid of of any app that you do not use (remember, if you get rid of anything in your life you later find essential, you can always bring it back).

Consider remaining applications carefully. They maybe important to you, but lead you to consumptive behavior. Email, Social-media apps, video apps, etc. The might properly belong in the remove pile, but we each have to make our own decisions on these. For me, getting rid of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as apps was a step (I've even gone so far to delete my Twitter account). Keep the apps you want access to, but use the phone's settings to minimize their intrusion into your daily life in several key ways.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

First, you can remove all notifications. Much of my smartphone use was triggered by the applications reaching out to me. I was getting a digital tap on the shoulder in the form of a ping or a pop-up or an icon on my home screen. My response to the tap was always to pick up my phone. I'd always check. Human Beings are wired to need certainty. Open a question in our minds and we are programmed to need to know the answer. It's a primal, base-level survival response. App developers know this and use it to manipulate us to use their apps. Removing notifications gets you back in control of one way the technology uses us rather than the other way around.

I also set my phone to automatically go into Do-Not-Disturb mode for specific hours every day. At 5pm, until 9am the next morning, only a programmed list of people important to me can reach me by phone or text. This small change put a giant border around my use of technology that gives me control of how the tool is used.

Another trick to get control over smartphone use is to minimize your phone screens. We decide where app icons appear on our phone, and we are able to have multiple screens. Put the essential apps, the ones you want quick access to, that don't lead to overconsumption or abuse your time, on the home screen. Bury other apps behind the home screen to add a layer layer of friction between the impulse to use the app (check email open Instagram) and the actual use of the app. This friction, the need to scroll to a second or third screen or first open a folder to gain access to an app, gives you a moment to challenge the impulse. I want to manage how often I check email, so I buried email in my phone. To get to my email app, I literally have to open my phone, scroll to the right four times, open a folder, scroll to the second page of icons, then click the email icon. That's enough effort that I question whether or not I really want to do this every time.

With my smartphone notifications silenced, do-not-disturb limiting access to me to working hours, and a screen layout that gets me quick access to the apps that I find essential, and adds friction to get to the apps I abuse, I feel like I am at peace with this technology now. How about you? Do you recognize the pervasiveness of this technology in your life? Do you feel out of balance, like you're giving too much time and energy to your smartphone that you want to redirect to more positive uses? How are you decluttering or minimizing your smartphone use?

The step-by-step to a decluttered smartphone:

  1. Scroll through your phone. Look at everything you've installed there. Create a list with three columns; keep, consider, and throw-away.
  2. Keep - list the essential apps. What do you need and use on a daily basis. Calendar? Calculator? Kindle Reader app? Phone, Text? Music, Podcast? These apps will stay, but the device will be setup to make them passive and readily accessible.
  3. Consider - decide which apps you use, but are habit-forming or you overuse mindlessly. For me, that's email and browsing the web. Those apps will stay, but will be silenced and placed behind a layer or two of friction.
  4. Throw-away - remove everything else that you can.
  5. Setup your screens. Home screen for need. Second screen with a folder full of the none-essentials. Maybe one screen per app (to force scrolling to find the one you typically use by habit and add friction).
  6. Setup a Do Not Disturb time.
  7. Establish your favorites (who will be able to penetrate the DND time).
  8. Turn off all notifications. All. Notifications. Except maybe the badges so long as they are not on the home screen. No push notifications.
  9. Charge your phone somewhere other than beside your bed.
  10. Leave your phone in your car when you go to the store or to a movie or to visit someone.
15Nov/180

The home-builder’s approach to writing

In order to lay out a project plan detailing how to write long-form fiction and non-fiction in less than nine months, we are wise to take lessons from the home-construction industry.

Writing a novel (or a non-fiction book) is a big job. The first draft of projects that are anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 words and more can take months, even years. It takes even longer to refine that draft into a publishable manuscript. In order to make it to the end of such a big task, it's important to have a plan that spells out the journey from idea to finished product.

The challenge in writing longer works is how easy it is to lose momentum. Short-form writing is so much easier to complete. Knocking out a 1,500-word article is a single creative task. The first version can go down in one sitting. The re-write and polish done in a session or two.

In long projects, the work stretches out over a very long timeline. It's common to start off with excellent momentum as you plow headlong into the first draft. I can turn out 1,000 words or more a day in no time when I am hot on a new idea. In theory then, a first draft should take me two to three months. Re-writes and revisions take less time per go-through, so I should be able to pop off a couple of book-length projects a year, right? But, and I think is common to many long-form writers, my current work-in-progress has languished for almost two years due to breaks in momentum (overwhelmed by other work, reach a sticky plot point and have to step out of the flow of writing to solve it), for example.

Picking back up after long delays is unhealthy for a book (or its author). You have to re-insert yourself into the flow of the story, re-pack the various story and character threads in your active, writing brain (the one that sits under your conscious mind and works at the story's problems while you're driving, showering, or doing anything else but writing).

Knowing this is going to happen though, it's important to be prepared for it, to have a plan in place.

What writers can learn from the construction industry

My family and I live in a semi-rural suburban community in the greater Phoenix area. Nestled in an older neighborhood with 300 two-acre horse properties, we had been surrounded by mostly farm fields and open desert since we moved in. But lately, progress has marched our direction in the form of fast-turnaround, tract-home housing neighborhoods.

It's amazing to see these projects at work. Modern home construction, from outside observation, is a remarkably efficient human enterprise. Land is cleared in a matter of days. Wooden frames appear almost overnights. Within a month or two, the first finished model homes are open for sale.

If you've ever had exposure to construction management, you'll know that the efficiencies come from the following of a system that is much like the system it takes to create full-length fiction and non-fiction.

Construction projects are broken down into their elemental parts, working backwards from the finished product. You can't move furniture into a new house until every detail in the interior is finished. The interior can't be finished until the flooring and walls are in place. The walls and flooring can't be finished until the electrical and plumbing and HVAC systems are installed. They can't go into place until the frame is in place. Which can only be erected on a solid foundation. Which has to sit on land that is properly prepared.

This is an over simplification, but you get the point. Efficiency in construction is about managing those layered efforts, bringing in the right crews to construct the right layers in the right order. And within each layer, making sure that materials, plans, and everything else the crew needs to get their piece done as quickly and correctly as possible is in place.

The primary took constriction project managers use is the Gantt chart. Ever seen one? It looks like a color-coded spreadsheet. The timeline of the project runs across the headers. The project elements (the jobs that have to be done) and listed in the columns (in the order they have to happen).

From WikipediaA Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule, named after its inventor, Henry Gantt (1861–1919), who designed such a chart around the years 1910–1915. Modern Gantt charts also show the dependency relationships between activities and current schedule status.

Build your next novel like contractors build a house

Writers can learn a great deal from construction. Have a plan. Break the bigger job into a series of smaller tasks that are needed. Set intermediate deadlines to keep the momentum going.

The exact steps and the timeline goals are for you to work out. For me (since this is a letter to myself), writing a novel breaks down to the following steps/timelines:

  • Story idea and initial outline - two weeks. Not everyone is a planner when it comes to writing fiction. Some people have the amazing ability to just write their way through a first draft. I need a plan. It starts with a two-week budget for outlining the next book-length project. I start with the basics of the story - the main characters, the settings, the major story line. Then I break that into thirds (setup, climax, the middle bit). Then I plot out the scenes (about 100 total). I then write paragraph or two-length beats of the action in the scenes as a guide to follow when writing.
  • First draft - 12 weeks. How fast this goes depends on how many words per day and how many days per week you can give it. I'm good for 1,500-2,500 words a day (when I have an outline to follow). I can write 5-6 days most weeks (work and life depending). Which means, a 100-scene first draft of about 80,000 words should take me less than 90-days to complete. The goal here is to get the first draft out in one creative push. The better you're able to hold momentum during the first-draft, the more likely you are to finish.
  • Re-write (1) - six weeks. In my experience, it takes about half as much time to read through, mark-up, and execute changes to a first draft to get a complete second draft. I make lots of notes of things I wants to fix, change, and improve, and only make the edits after I've read through and marked up the entire story. I print my manuscript for this edit because I find it's easier to read/edit on paper than on screen.
  • Re-write (2) - four weeks. You might need only two or three revisions. You might need more. The point here is to predict the phases of production you need to complete your book and stay focused on one intermediate goal at a time.  At some point, you'll have your best draft, something you can pass on to a few readers for feedback.
  • Final draft - two weeks. Taking my final notes, and notes from the reader(s), you should be able to produce a best draft. Only then is it time for professional editing. Paying a professional editor to critique and revise your manuscript can be expensive, so you want to make sure I have my best-possible draft ready.
  • Editor - four weeks. I plan to write another article about the different types of editors available (there are several), but if you're serious about producing professional work, you need professional guidance. Editors work on contract and you have to book your window with them in advance. If you did not plan this deadline to deliver your final draft to an editor in advance, your project could grind to a halt when your story goes to the editor. Book your editor as soon as you know you're going to have a first draft, a couple of months before you'd be ready to submit.
  • Cover, copy, marketing - the same four weeks. While your manuscript is with an editor, take the time to get your marketing materials and cover done. I'l write more about this in another post, but there are numerous freelancers available to hire for cover creation. The book will also need blurbs for the back of the cover, copy for the listing pages, or your website . The book will need a dedication page, acknowledgements, references (if non-fiction), newsletter subscription page, a list of your other works, etc. Get all these things done while your edit is underway. Schedule them here so you don't slow your writing down earlier in the book obsessing about things that don't matter until. And, if you're publishing through a traditional route, this is the time to dial in your query, synopsis, and cover letter.
  • Copy edit - two weeks. Whether you use a third party of do this yourself, someone needs to go through every sentence of the book carefully and find the last stinking remnants of misspellings, double words, missing punctuation, before you dare say the book is ready. Try reading your book aloud to spot imperfections. Read each paragraph in reverse order, from the back of the book to the front of the book. Find whatever trick and tip you can to make sure you leave no mistakes in the manuscript before publishing.
  • Publish and promote. Whether you publish independently through the various mediums available, or pursue traditional publishing, stop fiddling with the book and switch your brain into selling mode. Then immediately start your next project.

Completing a book-length project (for me) is, in theory, a thirty-six to forty-week project. Somehow, I've managed to stretch the current work-in-progress to out over two years by allowing my momentum to break in the middle of this workflow! To finish, I need build out this novel-production plan (Gantt chart) once more, identify where in the process I am with the current work, and re-insert myself into the production flow.

How about you? Do you have a production plan that you follow for writing your long-form work (fiction or non-fiction)? How different is it from this? What am I missing that you include? What do I include that is helpful to you?

29Mar/180

I am big, fat liar (the lazy writer)

I am not working hard enough on my dream

My current Work In Progress is a novella called The Singer. It's about a guy named Thatcher Graves who is the lead of a tribute band to a famous (fictional) group called The Light. The Light's lead singer and founder, Rock, disappeared under mysterious circumstances years before. Thatcher hires a run-down drifter (Gordy) who has a gift for playing Rock and The Light's music as a new lead singer. Over a week or so of getting to know the secretive Gordy, Thatcher becomes convinced he is actually Rock for real.

I have written a few drafts now and just made a major revision (over the last few weeks, I have read a printed copy of the manuscript and marked it up with changes and have just entered all those changes into the novel document in Scrivener). It's the best version I can create prior to it going out for its professional critique, or to be seen by Beta readers.

To finish entering the edits, I set a weekly goal of  typing in half the edits per week for two weeks. Every time I sat down to work on it, I kept track in my daily writing spreadsheet. The first week, I managed 139 pages (and procrastinated so I didn't really start until Thursday) so I felt good about myself. Then I reviewed the spreadsheet.

Looking back at the analysis of the time I spent working on my revisions, I came to the painful realization that rather than making remarkable progress on this project, I had managed to take a one or two-day project and stretch it out over four lazy weeks!

Here I was, felling good about myself, making progress on my production plan and thinking I am being professional about my writing but the whole time, was lying to myself about what progress means. Simply put, I was being lazy. My goal was not aggressive enough.

Am I the world's laziest writer?

The chart of my work for the week is pictured above. I am stunned by how little actual time I worked on my goal.

Don't get me wrong, I am a busy guy (working in two businesses, I have a family, fitness goals, and so on), but I had many, many opportunity to work on this editing. I didn't chart them but I bet I spent double or even triple this many hours watching television the same week. I slept in a couple of days. I read a book that week I know browsed Twitter and the news and obsessed over a million things in the world a hundred times for a few minutes each. I have no one to blame for not putting the time into my novel than me.

I'm disappointed in myself. The goal that I broke down into a two-week project, when I look at the actual work involved, could have taken place in two days. One if I was ambitious! Seriously, what am I waiting for?

My legacy goal is to master the art of storytelling in the novel format. To get there, I need to keep writing novels, keep putting them out these for readers to react to, and keep taking that feedback and learning and growing for the next project. I have set a big goal for myself to publish 20 novels in the next 20 years. It seemed ambitious at the time. And I really, really, really want to succeed at this. But now 20 novels in 20 years is starting to feel like a lazy goal. Maybe it should be double? Or the timeline shortened?

The questions to ask about your Big Hairy Audacious Goal

Will I change anything based on this revelation? I think so. I'm starting with questions. I've written them below (in case they help you in your goal-setting). And when I have the answers, I'll share them to.

Do you have a lifetime goal for your writing? Are you on track to reach it? Do you have a clear picture of what success looks like? And are you honest with yourself on whether or not you're doing the work it takes to get there?