Habits of Highly Effective Writers: The Magic Notebook

Ray Bradbury says that ideas are like cats and women: the harder you chase them, the faster they run away. Instead, inspiration comes at odd times and under strange conditions. It hits when you’re driving, or mowing the lawn, or standing in the grocery line. Or as you’re drifting off to sleep, or when you’re four-thirds of the way to drunk with your brothers on Christmas Eve.

All of this underlines the importance of one of the best habits a writer can take on: always carry your magic notebook.

When ideas stream through your consciousness, scrawl them down in the magic notebook. When you’re working later, you can review your ideas and work on what’s on your plate that day. This process accomplishes several things:

  • You stop forgetting brilliant ideas you had while away from your work area.
  • You can avoid writer’s block by having a list of ideas ready to hand.
  • You’re less tempted to abandon current projects for new inspiration, because you’re confident the idea will still be available later on.

Your notebook doesn’t have to be an actual pen-and-paper notebook anymore. Many writers use a digital audio recorder, or even a practically antique handheld tape recorder. Cell phones will do in a pinch with an integral audio recorder, or you can just call and leave yourself a message. The new app phones combine the best features of notebooks and audio. Me, I stick with my grid-ruled Moleskine notebook — just like Hemmingway and Morrow, but Odin knows I’m a bit of a Luddite.

One final word on the notebook for shower thinkers. By happy accident, my baby boy taught me a solution to the shower inspiration: tub crayons. These wipable, waterproof babies let you preserve those ideas without stepping out, chilling yourself to the bone and soaking the floor in the process.

Thanks for listening.

April Moore on Work Habits (Part 2)

Go To Your Room
If I had known how much I could have accomplished as a kid when my parents sent me to my room, I’d have
a seven-book series by now. Today, I treasure alone time in my room where instead of plotting revenge on my
sister, I actually get quality time to write. Claim your own space, whether it’s a room, a corner, or a table. Your
area should also consist of only what you need to write. Don’t work at a desk where you pay bills, or do other
hobbies. You need to focus on writing. My area is the guest bedroom. I found a small desk at a flea market,
painted it and parked it by the window. The closet, situated behind the desk, houses my weapons of writing:
reference books, research, and all those extra office supplies I stocked up on. (You can never have too many
Post-Its). Make the space inviting—but only to you. You need to be left alone, so politely inform your spouse,
your kids, and your dog (who’s holding the leash in his mouth) to not bother you while you are in this special
space of yours. I’m one of those who needs a change of scenery every once in a while, so sometimes I’ll work
in the sun room, out on the deck, or on the living room couch. But inevitably, I find that I’m most productive
when I go to my room.

Break it Down
I tend to freak myself out thinking about the amount of work I have ahead of me. Nothing like a bit of fear to
kill your motivation. I must remind myself to take baby steps. Luckily, Folsom’s 93 can be broken down into
roughly 93 steps. So, I tackle one at a time, sometimes two. If your project feels like deciphering the Dead Sea
Scrolls, then break it down. Work on one scroll at time—or half a scroll. Don’t put more pressure on yourself
than you need to. Shoot for a certain number of pages a day to get done. Maybe it’s one chapter at time, or one
article a day, or the introduction of your book proposal. You will feel more accomplished and productive if you
take on only what you can handle that day. When I applied this method, I had those scrolls deciphered in no
time.

Reward Yourself
What does your little heart desire? (Think small for this, okay?) Maybe it’s a new book, a nice bottle of wine,
or going to the theater to see a movie. Now, choose the task or project you need to do and set a deadline. When
you meet that deadline, reward yourself. I know this may sound simplistic, but it works. Yes, you could give
yourself the reward anyway, but show some willpower, because trust me, that reward is way less satisfying if
you truly didn’t earn it. Write your deadline and reward on a board or post it on the refrigerator to keep you
motivated. Get the family involved to help support you on your journey because it’s even more rewarding when
others can share it with you.

With a bit of creativity, it’s possible to be a productive writer without fleeing to deserted beach house, or a
lonely cabin in the mountains.

 

Thank you, April, for this great advice for us all. And thank you, readers, in advance, for checking out April’s project when you get the chance. 

Accountability

This week was a big, steaming brown pile from an accountability standpoint.

Instead of working on writing goals, I built some furniture with my son, visited with old friends from out of town and cleaned the living bajeezus out of my back yard and garage.

I did manage to meet my basic moneymaking goals, to post on this blog and work on an ongoing speculative project I plan to launch soon. I also finished off a larger assignment and took two meetings on another project I might become embroiled in.

I should have scheduled this week as a week off — I knew ahead of time how hard it would be to get everything done. That way I’d feel pretty okay about meeting my plan instead of vaguely uptight with myself for slacking off.

Ah well — the best part of screwing up is that you get to try again.

Thanks for listening.

April Moore on Work Habits (Part 1)

I’m pleased to announce that April Moore, author of Folsom’s 93  and all-around great writer, has agreed to do a few guest posts about writing from her perspective. Without further foolish foofoorah, heeeeeere’s April…

I think many writers revel in the idea of a secluded place to work; a long retreat, free from interruptions and time to master our craft. However, this concept never seems to end well for Stephen King’s writer characters. So before you head to a vacant mountain hotel, or a remote cabin in upstate New York, consider these work-from-home tips that won’t involve axes, poltergeists, or dead bodies.

Take Care of Distractions

I’m easily distracted, whether it’s something shiny or a pile of laundry. Sometimes, no matter how determined I am to get several pages written, even small things can veer me off the creative path. Working from home poses a plethora of distractions that can keep you from settling into work mode. Combat them by dealing with those things before you flip on the laptop. Wake up early and take care of that load of laundry, pile of bills, or a sink full of dishes. Schedule your chores and writing time. Perhaps designating one day to household tasks can enable you to work the rest of the week. Another distraction is the internet. Aren’t you curious about your blog stats, Twitter updates, or Lindsay Lohan’s latest court appearance? If you don’t need internet access to write, then turn it off. What about noises? One word: Earplugs.

 Get Organized

Treat yourself to a shopping spree at an office supply store. They say if you buy great workout gear, you’re more likely to get your butt to the gym. Same goes for writing. If you want that fancy pencil holder, get it. Do what you need to do to create a productive work environment. Organization is critical for me since I have 93 dead guys to keep track of. I bought a few file boxes with hanging folders and together, my label maker and I went to town. Each inmate has his own folder containing absolutely everything pertaining to him: transcripts, newspaper articles, and even critiques from my writers group when I’ve submitted his story to them. If your work is disorganized, you may not feel motivated and driven. Get the right tools to help you.

Tune in soon to hear April tell you about rewarding yourself, breaking work down and going to your room. 

Thanks for listening.

 

More Accountability

Alert readers know that I’ve made the following weekly commitments to myself for my productivity this summer.

6 “Units” of paid writing, 5 Acts of Marketing, 4 Blog “Packages”, 3 Proposals, 2 Administrative sessions and 1 Education module. The partridge and pear tree were optional, based on time. 

This week was challenging in terms of accountability. School’s out, so my oldest boy and wife are home. It’s hard to resist the temptation to play and enjoy them. I didn’t always succeed, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I did get up early on Saturday and churn out 7 hours of productivity, but it wasn’t quite enough to meet my goals. As it was, this week’s final tally was:  (bold type indicates success)

  • 6 completed units of paid work 
  • 3 acts of marketing
  • 4 blog packages completed
  • 1 proposal
  • 2 administrative sessions
  • 1 education module
I have trouble with proposals more than anything else. They’re the most abstract, and seem the like I get the least concrete reward for the work. or maybe I procrastinate out of fear of failure. I’d love to hear what others do to keep themselves up on that sort of work.
Thanks for being here to keep me keeping myself honest. And, as always…
Thanks for listening.

More Accountability

Hi all,

After a week of research and reporting — and looking at my position in relationship to my goals, I’ve decided to go with a pyramid structure for my writing. I’m organizing it weekly to give myself maximum flexibility. It’s summer, and my wife is a public school teacher. We tend to get out a lot with them all out of school, so a daily routine won’t work. My overall plan for this summer includes the following broad-stroke goals:

  • I need to meet quotas on my bread-and-butter web content assignments. It’s my main source of income, and will fund the wild excesses I plan to spoil my family with.
  • I want to grow this blog, and plan to launch a total of three more by summer’s end, and to begin transitioning myself out of primarily doing content work and into long-form articles and books.
  • I must continue to market my work, and network with colleagues, editors and industry insiders.
  • I need to keep myself sharp by continuing to educate myself and remain informed about what’s going on in the industry and the world.
The trouble with these is that they’re all ongoing projects. None have an end in sight that lends itself to simple timeline. That’s why I’m adopting a pyramid approach to accountability — they’re ideal for assigning yourself sufficient progress on continuing work.  So, in front of y’all I do solemnly swear to do my damnedest to meet the following goals every week. Some weeks I’ll fail. Other’s I’ll exceed them. So long as I stay near those benchmarks, I should do all right. Every week, I will complete:
  1. Education Module — a unit of reading or other research that keeps me up. I might read a magazine or magazine, listen to a relevant podcast or complete some kind of training program.
  2. Admin Sessions — including keeping up with email, tweaking blogs, sending invoices, writing letters and strategic planning.
  3. Blog “Packages” — “package” is loosely defined. For this blog, it’s a week’s worth of posts. The new ones I’ve divided into chunks of similar startup work.
  4. Proposals — of magazine articles, other long-form articles, or significant work on book proposals.
  5. Acts of Marketing — a phrase I learned from Tom Callos. This can be anything I do that builds my readership and brand. This includes applying for new assignments.
  6. Units of Paid Content Writing — I’ve defined a “unit” as a specific amount of money earned. This will be enough to make my nut.
I want to thank you all in advance for being out there and keeping me on track. It’s surprising how much the possibility of public humiliation can motivate.
And, as always, thanks for listening.

Other Tracking Ideas

Setting structured goals with set timelines is my favored method for accomplishing the things I want to, and it’s one of the most commonly accepted approaches in business, government and military planning. It is not, however, the only one out there. Some other ways to reach the same destination include…

Tickler Files

A tickler file is the organizational version of a nagging mom or accountability coach. You set up physical files, or a calendar program, or one of several apps, to “poke” you when it’s time to get something done. This works for set tasks and for ongoing projects. You can get a reminder a month ahead to buy a birthday present, or set up for daily reminders to write your three pages of manuscript.

To-Do List

You know this one. It’s a list of the tasks you want to accomplish. This method is so common you can buy notepads with check boxes specifically to make one. Google calendar and similar programs include this option. What you might not know is that to-do lists scale up. You can make a to-do list for the year, then break it up by month, week and day.

Inspired Seizure

For some folks, all the goal setting they need is passion for the current project. They work on what they want, when they want to, and come out the other end with a finished product. I know very few people for whom this works on a reliable basis, and even they generally have the luxury of somebody else taking responsibility for their daily upkeep and bills. Still, it is a method and it does work for some people.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your methods for goal setting? Do you use a structured approach, or are you more organic? What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to setting and reaching your goals? How do you celebrate when you cross a big item off your list?

Thanks for listening.

Goal Setting: Ongoing Projects

An area where goal setting gets tricky is the ongoing projects and efforts in your life. It’s easy to say “My goal is to write 10 pages a week for the next month.” Your end is clearly defined and easily measurable. But how do you define your goals for physical fitness, for time with your family, for reading? With no set end to the task, it’s harder to set specific goals.

One approach, and the one I like best, is to make the process itself a goal. Don’t phrase your victory conditions in terms of work accomplished, but in terms of effort made. For example, pursuing new assignments is a big part of my job. Without new work coming in, I have to go work in an office or something — a fate I’d rather avoid if I can. This is a sisyphean task: unending and often difficult. Each week, I promise myself I’ll apply for x gigs, send in y article pitches, and spend z hours on my book proposal.

I came across an interesting structure for this kind of goal-setting in a book by Drs. Roizen & Oz, the “YOU: The Owner’s Manual” guys. It’s not theirs originally, but they’re who introduced me to the 5 to 1 goal pyramid. Their example used this concept as a guide for helping your kids understand nutrition and fitness:

  • 5 servings of veggies every day
  • 4 servings of fat-free dairy
  • 3  compliments to create a positive atmosphere
  • 2 hours or less of screen time
  • 1 hour of active play or exercise
If a mnemonic like that is easy enough for an elementary school student, I’m reasonably confident I could use it without too much trouble. Maybe I could structure it thusly:
  • 5 daily blocks of writing on current, paying projects
  • 4 acts of marketing and promotion daily
  • 3  hours of work on book proposals each week
  • 2 days off weekly to spend with my family and recharge the motor
  • 1 magazine article proposal every day
That might be too simplistic for the reality, but you get the general idea. Ultimately, how you structure these things is less important than being committed about following it. For my wife, a sticker on the calendar for every day she hits the gym is all the formal planning she needs.
Thanks for listening.

Goal Setting: Volume

This is what I used for my most recent productivity cycle. You figure out how much you want to do, then divide it by the number of days you want to do it in. The result is how much you have to do, on average, each day to meet your goals. I arrived at my weekly goal by dividing my financial needs by nine weeks…resulting in the benchmarks I used for my accountability posts these past two months.

That part isn’t exactly rocket science, but there are some fine points a lot of people miss.

Set small short-term goals. It’s natural to dream big, but many of us set our goals when we’re in a gung-ho state of mind. We decide to get it all done, plus fix that riser on the stairs, this week. Reality intrudes and we fall short, discouraged. It makes it hard to want to set goals the next time around.

Set big long-term goals. So many of us get caught in the short-term goal trap that we forget what we’re capable with small contributions over the long haul. Tom Callos taught me this by asking me to run 1,000 miles and do over 50,000 pushups in one year. That’s just three miles of running each week, and 75 pushups per day. The point here isn’t that I’m a badass…it’s that you can do incredible things if you give yourself time and make yourself keep at it even after the new wears off.

Set benchmarks. Business managers know about this, and so should you if you want to manage your own writing business. Don’t say “I want to write a 365 page book this year, at one page a day.” Unless your Mr. Spock, or maybe Data, this will inevitably lead to you taking January through September off and scrambling during the fall. Instead, say “I will write 30 pages per month for one year.” This keeps you on track for success from day one…and gives you something to gauge your progress against in real time.

Remain flexible. Alert readers might have spotted some of this during my last productivity binge. My surgery took more out of me than I expected, and for longer than I’d planned for. I didn’t abandon my goals…I just shifted some numbers around and worked harder when I felt better. You can always change your plan to suit reality, and a changed plan is always better than no plan.

You can set volume goals according to work completed, money made or both. When setting money-based goals, choose between money earned and income paid to your accounts. These are sadly very different numbers. In my current cycle, I’m going to do both work and money: money for immediate income, and work for speculative projects.

Thanks for listening.