Category Archives: StoryADay.org

How I Made Some New Habits Stick, in January

Habits Update Jan 2016

Last month I was writing about habits over at StoryADay.org and trying out various ways to change my habits — not just for a day or two, but for the whole month.

I had varying degrees of success and I learned a thing or two. I thought I’d share them here.

picture of Asian Zoodle Salad Jar from FoxesLoveLemons.com

photo: FoxesLoveLemons.com

Habits I Was Trying To Develop In January

  • Taking a new medication every morning (Routine? Ugh!)
  • Writing fiction regularly, to a goal of 10K words a month.
  • Reading a spiritual meditation every day.
  • Tracking my food intake.

Things That Went Well

Anchoring

I wrote about this at the start of the month. I had taken part in a study once that used this technique to make habits stick, so I knew it ought to be powerful, but I don’t think I really believed I could make it work so well.

But I did.

Now, every morning when I wake up, I roll over and take the medicine that’s sitting next to my bed. (My incentive to remember this is actually pretty perfect: it has to be take on an empty stomach, so if I don’t stick to this, my first coffee is delayed by every minute I waste. Aargh!)

My 30-day challenge for January was to read a spiritual meditation every morning. I anchored that habit to “the moment my son gets in the shower”.

Logging

Logging My Words

I have had a love-hate relationship with logging in the past. When I set daily goals for my writing, all it did was make me feel terrible. Partly because I was setting ‘best of all possible worlds’ numbers. And partly because I’m not built to write consistently every day.

Realizing this, I settled on 10,000 words of fiction a month, early last year, and made that my goal.

Logging the words (especially on a day when the writing is going slowly) really helps me to feel like I’m making progress.

Unexpected Bonus

My fitness trainer, sick of hearing me whine about how I can’t lose weight, made me promise to log my food intake. He promised he wouldn’t judge me: that we were just going to use what I wrote down as data. (He made me sign something because I was making such terrible faces at him).

And when I thought about it, I knew, from logging my words, that I could use the data to help me feel better. So I did. And I went from losing no weight (or gaining) to losing a pound a week two weeks in a row! (Trust me, for me, this is huge).

The simple act of recording and quantifying a thing is a powerful way to take misconception and emotion out of the equation.

  • Setting a reasonable goal (323 words a day or 1300-ish calories) and trying to meet it MOST days, is manageable.
  • Tracking it, over a month or more, lets you see that you are neither as awesome nor as awful as you suspect you are, on any given day. And that’s OK. Because “consistent” is what will win the race.

Make It Friction Free

Everything that worked to make my habits stick, was based on my lifelong pursuit of laziness efficiency.

If I have to prepare a lot of stuff before I start on The Thing, I’ll never get to The Thing. So I try my best to have a smooth entry into every task.

My medicine

…lives by my bed and my lovely husband brings me a glass of water every day when he gets his first coffee. If I had to get up and go downstairs, find my meds wherever I dumped them yesterday, find my slippers because the kitchen floor is cold, get water, then take the pill, I would not get it right every day.

Spiritual Meditation

My book of spiritual meditations is sitting next to the bed with a hairpin marking the page of the next meditation (because I always have hairpins lying around). As soon as I hear the shower turn on, I grab the book. It takes very little time to read, but having it on my bedside table, and anchored to a specific action is what makes this habit work.

If I had to search for the book every day, my son would be out of the shower and demanding breakfast before I’d even picked it up. If I tried to find a time every day to squeeze it in, I’d end up scrambling to read the meditation as I fell asleep every night, which wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

Fiction Writing

I keep all the notes for my novel in the same notebook I use as my journal and my list-maker and my ‘taking notes while on the phone’ book. This saves me from having to find the right book either when I want to make notes, or when I want to find them again.

I number all the pages and, from time to time, go through and add to the “table of contents” that I create in the back few pages of the book. This helps me scan through the ToC and find out where my latest brilliant idea is, for the next part of the novel. I also have a list of scenes that I know I want to write soon, right in Scrivener. They’re brainstormed and ready to go, which helps me figure out what to write each time I sit down.

Food

Food, ah food. How I love it. But one of the reasons I eat badly is also the reason I hate logging food: I don’t plan ahead.

If I’m scrambling for lunch when I’m already hungry, then whatever is to hand is what goes in my mouth. Lots of it. Then I have to figure out how much I ate and how to log that (I use MyFitnessPal, which is good because it has a massive database of food, but bad because you have to find the foods, then figure out how to quantify your portion, then do it again for every component of a recipe…)

In January I took my doctor’s advice (a lovely woman who struggles with all the same issues I do!), and started making up salad jars. It’s an easy portion-control method and means I always have something to grab. It almost doesn’t matter what I put in there, because of the built-in portion control aspect.

I pick one recipe a week, shop for the small quantities you need to fill four 16 oz mason jars, then spend a little while on Sunday or Monday, making up lunches for the week ahead. (I like this Spicy Peanut Zoodle Recipe and her Chicken and Spinach salad jars with grapes and a mustard-thyme dressing. I know I’m a year or two behind on the Mason Jar Salad trend, but I’m here now. Let’s party!) Even making up your own dressing and chopping veg doesn’t seem so bad when you do it once and feed yourself four times. And I LOVE all the freshness and crunch. I especially love being able to open the fridge and eat instantly (mmm, fooooooood).

The other thing (and why I went off on this rant in the first place) is that if I eat the same thing every day (or rotate a few receipes over a few weeks) I can log the ‘meal’ in MyFitnessPal once and I never have to enter in all those individual ingredients again. I just select “Asian Zoodle Jar” from the “My Recipes” tab, and it’s done.

See? Friction Free.

It doesn’t work for every meal or every situation, but batch-cooking makes it easier to prepare healthy meals and log them. (I know, rocket science, right? Reinventing the wheel, sure. Discovering things for yourself: sometimes essential!)

What I’m Still Working On

Weekends

Our routine goes way out of whack at the weekends. I need to develop different anchors for the some of the habits at weekends.

Also, I get embarrassed about logging my food. I don’t know why, but I do. Any suggestions for getting over that?

This Month’s 30-day Challenge

This month I’m trying to relax for 15 minutes a day, with something unrelated to housework or reading/writing (I’m mostly doing meditation, exercise, knitting, and musical things so far).

I don’t have a good way to trigger this. I’m thinking maybe ‘after lunch’, but that’s kind of nebulous. I do need to take a little sanity break midday, but I haven’t found a good way to anchor it yet. Do you have any ideas for me?

Next month I’ll be back to talk about my Relaxation Challenge and about the Permission To Write theme I’m writing about all month long at the StoryADay blog.

Make Stuff You Love

I’m writing more and more in this blog about my writing process and what I’m up to, in part because of this book, Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. You should take a look if you have any ambitions to make your creative impulses more than a dirty little secret that you sort of maybe mention apologetically if anyone pushes you.
This morning I sat out on the deck, trying to write a story for StoryADay May. At first I tried to write something short, based on observations of the world around me, because I felt guilty taking time away from the family on a weekend morning.

I hated the thing I wrote.

I mean, there were words and phrases in there that were pretty, but the overall thing? Ugh.

So I gave in and finished a fragment I had started the other day. I knew it had the potential to be good, it was just not going to be quick. But, as my friend Austin up there says, “Make stuff you love.” Really, what’s the point in putting in any time if I’m not going to do that much?

So I did. it’s not a short story. Really it’s a scene from the novel I’ve been wrestling with forever, but it’s a complete scene. “Write and finish every day” is kind of the key point of StoryADay May; the rest is all up to the individual writer. So I’m writing scenes. Not all of them fit into the novel, but they’re not complete short stories, because I’m not setting up the characters every time or doing complete world-building. They might turn into short stories later, or into parts of future novels, or they might just help me figure out the world I’m writing about.

What they ARE doing though, is leaving me energized and raring to go about my day.

I don’t know how many times I will have to learn this lesson until it sticks: writing makes me happy. It makes the rest of my life go better. I should do it first thing every day (or as near to first thing as I can manage) because everything else just works better after I’ve filled my reserves by writing.

That’s been one of the most powerful lessons of StoryADay for me, over the years: that writing every day is something I need to do. When you get this lesson hammered home every day for 31 days in a row, it makes a bit more of an impression than when you just experience it in bits and pieces.

What about you? What leaves you energized and happy and feeling like your best self? Do you make an effort to do it everyday, even if it feels selfish when you start out? (Hint: it’s not). What will it take to make you do that thing regularly?

How My Writing Went Today

It went something like this:

I have to write something. I’m going to do it now. But first I’ll check Twitter and email and make sure there are no emergencies that need dealt with…and oh look, someone’s posted the President’s speech from the White House Press Corps Dinner…OMG that’s hilarious. And oh, look there’s a link to Joel McHale’s speech too…ah that was great.

Oh. Now it’s an hour later than it was. But that’s OK I can still write.

But maybe I’d better eat lunch first. Yum!

OK, I’m really going to write. What am I going to write about? WHAT CAN I POSSIBLY WRITE ABOUT OH GOD I’M NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TOWRITEANTOHERSTORYEVERYAGAINOHGOD…Wait. The prompt was about ‘shame’. That seems like a good emotion to mine. [Whine] But I don’t WANNA write about shame, it’s so serious and I want to write something funny and wahwahwahwah, wait. Isn’t comedy just tragedy+time? Aren’t some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard based in horror? OK then.

BUT HOW AM I GOING TO START THIS, WAHHHHHH. Describe the setting. Talk directly to the reader. It’s just a start. Youc an always edit it out later.

Breathe.

OK.

Starts writing.

Hey, this is fun.

[500 words later] OK, this is still fun, but I’m not getting anywhere. Nothing’s happening, I need to make something happen OMG I CAN’T MAKE ANYTHING HAPPEN, THIS ISN’T A STORY, THIS IS JUST A SERIES OF CLEVER WORDS, I’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO WRITE A STORY AGAIN WAHHHH

[250 words later]OK this is starting to go somewhere. But now I’m getting tired and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to finish, but if I take a break I might never get back to it and then it’ll just be another in the long sad history of unfinished stories that litter my path through life and oh God I’m a horrible person…

Let me just type this up and see what happens.

Wait, I think I know how to end this. If I can just get through typing up everything I wrote, I might have a chance of making this work.

OK, that’s a horrible, terrible sentence, but I’m going to leave it in because it gets me from here to there and lets me power on towards the end. I’ll fix it in the read through.

Oh, wait, this is going really well. Shut up, you in the back of my mind there. I KNOW it’s not perfect, but it’s starting to have shape and I know how it’s going to end, and I know what the important emotions are and dammit, it’s a story.

It’s ALIVE!!!!!

And it’s done.

And now i’m a little sad.

Pennsylvania State Capitol

Creating The World

Pennsylvania State CapitolWell, that doesn’t make it sound like I’m getting above my station, does it? Delusions of godhood? Surely not!

But there is a world I’ve been inventing. I’ve written parts of two novels set in this world. Every time I struggle to finish them, I run into the same problem: there are lots of gaps in what I know about the world. Not knowing, slows me down. I thought it would be easier to write in a fictitious world than to make up stories that seemed realistic to people living in the same world as the setting. I’m not sure ‘easier’ is the word I should have used. “Fun”? Yes. “Stimulating?” Yes. “Easy”? No.

So I’ve decided I’m going to devote a lot of my StoryADay May to writing stories set in the main city in my world.

This morning I’ve been slaving over a spider-like mind-map, full of different areas of life that might be fodder for stories: Family life, politics, beliefs, green issues, city life, socializing…Each little branch represents an area of city life that I might want to explore. Having decided upon that, I will (I hope) decide on what kind of conflict could arise, who might care about it, and what their story is.

I like well-defined assignments, and now I feel like I have one for the whole of next month.

Are you writing a StoryADay in May? Or even a story a week? Come and join us.

My Latest Book – Writing Prompts 2014

In the last episode, I talked about how I was writing a months’ worth of blog posts AND an ebook at the same time (using WordPress and Scrivener).

Today I’m coming with an update: the book is ready!

writingprompts2014coverlarge

 

Scrivener Report

I did enjoy putting the book together with Scrivener and I discovered that it has a really powerful ‘compile’ feature that outputs all kinds of ebook formats (including the .mobi format I wanted for Kindle).

However, in the end I was (gasp!) up against a time crunch and wanted to Get It Done! I didn’t have time to play around (more than four or five times) with the Compile function to try to get it all right, and then to figure out how to attach the cover image and…

Since I’ve made Kindle ebooks before by creating a Word document, converting it to “.htm” and uploading that, that’s what I did this time. I used Scrivener’s compile feature to give me a Word file that I then formatted the way I wanted it (minimal formatting, just using styles and page breaks) and then converted to HTML.

I will, I swear, learn to use the very cool Scrivener functionality for that at some point.

The Cover

Kindle covers should be 1563 pixels on the shortest side and 2500 pixels on the longest side. I’ve made a few before and have a kind of template set up, so I opened up Photoshop Elements and made my adjustments, then saved it as a .jpg. Boom!

Kindle eBooks

Did you know it’s free to upload a Kindle eBook to Amazon?

I always assume people know that, but really, why would you? So now you do. It’s free. I set the price and Amazon takes between 30-65% of the list price, depending on the royalty structure I choose and the territory it’s being sold in. Compared to traditional publishing deals this is pretty sweet (except I don’t have a team of professionals to help me out, nor an advance. I also don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission to ‘get published’ though and I have access to a massive, well-oiled selling machine that will handle most of the technical stuff for me, so I call it a deal).

It’s perfect for someone like me, who is using ebooks as an educational resource for my blog readers.


There’s more to tell on this ebook project — including pricing, promotions and results, but I’ll save that for another day.

How I’m Creating A Book As I Blog

I’m gearing up for the StoryADay May challenge for 2014 and writing a new ebook as I go along. How? I’ll show you (cue: John Hammond whisper)

For the past few years, at the urging of challenge participants, I’ve provided writing prompts every day during StoryADay May. Every year I vow to be ahead of the game and write them all out before May starts. Usually I get a couple of weeks in and then spend the latter part of May scrambling to catch up.

Last year I did a thing where — again, prompted by participants — I put out a week’s worth of prompts ahead of time, so people could plan their writing week. That was a bit better than my usual scramble, but I still did a lot of the work during May.

This year I have resolved to not only have the full months’ worth of prompts available before May begins but to release them as an ebook that I can charge money for. (Money is a lovely carrot that I dangle in front of myself to make LazyMe follow through on some of my good intentions. I’m not hugely motivated by money, but since I’m planning on putting in all this work, it’d be nice if I could get a little summin-summin to help pay the for web-hosting costs, the domain registration or my upcoming photo session with Nathan Fillion at Comicon – swoon…)

The Process

Here’s what I’m doing.

Step 1: Mindmap

I have a mind map of all the topics for each week (OK, most of them). Doing this first helps me set themes for each week, see what I’m doing, what I’m missing and what I shouldn’t spend time writing about on Day 1 (because I know I’m going to cover it on Day 4).

zuXCSNU5

Step 2: Write The Post

I have a template in place for prompts, which I’m using as a framework for each post.

Writing Prompt screenshot

 

It goes: preamble (sometimes), The Prompt, Tips, “Go!” along with possibly a reminder to comment or post in the community.

Once I’ve written the meat of the post I’ll take some time to schedule the post for the appropriate day (posting just after midnight) and I’ll add it to the /inspiration/daily-prompt/may-2014 category so that my Mailchimp’s RSS-to-Campaign feature will pick it up and send it out to all the people who have signed up to receive prompts by email. Nifty!

If I’m really smart I’ll remember to add tags (‘writing prompt’ and something context driven) so I can find and link to them again in future when I am writing similar prompts but want to give my audience more options.

I might even find an appropriate Creative-Commons photo on Flickr to illustrate the post AND write an SEO-keyword-laden excerpt. In the interests of getting an ebook out, however, I’m not doing that on this pass. (None of that stuff will go in the ebook and it’s all stuff I can do in the last few days before the challenge when my brain is fried and we’re taking the inevitable roadtrip/having visitors/enjoying Easter/whatever-the-hell-else April/May can throw at me this year.)

What I really want to do is get to the next step.

Step 3 – Scrivener

After having finally watched some videos on how to use Scrivener properly, it seems to me the perfect vehicle for putting together a non-fiction book, even if I can’t make it work for fiction. So I’m using it for that, with the expectation that, at the end of the writing phase I’ll be able to quickly go through each file and make sure I’ve been consistent in format. Then I can add introductions to each week and maybe some introductory/conclusion material, and then use the built-in ‘compile’ feature to turn out a nicely-formatted ebook for quick upload to Amazon, Smashwords and my site.

Method: it’s pretty clunky, but I’m writing each prompt in the WordPress window, adding scheduling and tags and then  cutting and pasting each day’s text from the blog into Scrivener. It’s working for me, for now.

scrivener screenshot

I’m really only posting this here so that, if I try to do this again,  I’ll have some record of how I did it, but if you’re reading this and you’re not Future-Me, then I hope it helps you with your own “Blog To Book” project!

 

What Will It Take?

(cross-posted at StoryADay.org)

One of my absolute favourite blogs in the world is WhoDunnKnit by Deadly Knitshade. It is funny, absurdly creative and did I mention funny?

Knitters are fun!

I’m always inspired by the posts because in them I see someone doing what she loves, doing a really professional job, and committing to her art in a way that anyone with a passion would admire.

I’ve been subscribed for a while now, but today I finally read the ‘about’ page on the blog.

Read The Rest At StoryADay.org – and please comment, if you have an answer to the question I end this piece with.

Making Time For Warm-Up Writing

Astronomical ClockIn my last post I talked about the importance of warm-up writing. It’s magic. It gets you past the creaky, just-woken-up feeling in your writing and straight into the part where you remember why you love to do this.

But doesn’t it seem like warm-up writing will steal time from your ‘real’ projects?

Making Time

I’m always saying that no-one should wait until they ‘have’ time or ‘find’ time to write. You need to make time.

As a twist on that, warm-up writing actually grants us me more time to write the good stuff.

Time Crunch

Last year I took part in my first NaNoWriMo. I also had a part-time job and a family to look after. Finding time to write 1667 words every day for 30 days was a challenge.

At first I skipped the warm-up writing because it just seemed like such a waste of time.

Gradually, however, I realized I was still doing my warm-up writing; only I was writing it into the novel. Starting my novel writing every day was painful, stilted, creaky. Only when I got to about 750 did it start to flow.

So I started taking the 20 minutes to write my 750 words on things that didn’t matter.

Then, I would plunge into my novel, fresh and raring to go. Before I knew what had happened I was flying past my daily deadlines.

Of course, I started doing warm-up writing every day (OK, most days. I’m not that smart.)


So how about you? Do you do warm-up writing? if you do, what and where do you do it? If you don’t, why not?