Mar 11, 2014

Time Management Tuesday - Guest Ovidia Yu

I'm super excited to be debuting my author time management interview series with my Lotus Lit Agency sister Ovidia Yu. Last September, William Morrow released Ovidia's latest work, a cozy mystery set in Singapore. Auntie Lee's Delight, is a fun read and a terrific view into Singapore's culture.

Ovidia was kind enough to stop by and share some of her time management tips and tricks that she's picked up over the course of her twenty year writing career.

How long have you been writing?
Since I was 10 or 11 years old, when I wrote adventure stories in the style of the Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild books I loved so much.

Do you write full time or part time (do you have a day job besides writing?)?
Now I’m writing full time. But the fun fiction writing is sort of part time since I also do some commercial writing on the side.

Are you planner/plotter/architect or a pantser/gardener?
Both! Before I start I plan and plot and structure and it’s the greatest fun. I’ve got about three plots spinning around in my head right now. And I like to have to have a shape that feels good to me. The problem is when I actually sit down and start writing my (extremely) detailed plots just get forgotten as the characters take over. But then when I finish a draft and have this hideously overwritten, overloaded and over lengthy mass of material (the gardener / panster product) I switch back to planner stage and start weeding out stuff that doesn’t work and introduce borders and lawn sprinklers etc in the right places.

How do you balance your time between writing and editing?
Usually the writing comes faster. It takes me about 3 months to produce a rough draft. Then I’ll take about 6 months to work through it slashing and rewriting. Usually this gets repeated a couple of times so it’s usually the third draft that feels ready enough to get submitted to the agent. But occasionally when I get stalled on something I’ll crush down my instincts and send it in early. Like I have a piece I’ve been sitting on for almost two years and over seven drafts. I know it’s not ready but I’ve submitted it and I’m cringing now just at the thought of her reading it. Yes she’s nice and she’ll be nice about it, but I shouldn’t do that to people (ie make them read stuff that’s not ready)

What is your system for getting your writing done? (e.g do you have word count goals, write on a particular day or at a particular time?)

I set myself minimum targets. Very low minimums—the word count minimum is governed my quota on the Magic Spreadsheet which I discoveredvia Mur Lafferty and which I really love. Though I’ve broken my chain now because I’ve been doing copy edits which doesn’t give me word count totals. And the time minimum is a 20 minute pomodoro on the KanbanFlow timer.

(MJ Note: Be still my project management, beating heart! Magic spreadsheets and Kanban timers? Wow. I'm so impressed. I added links to the tools. I'll be talking more about these in a coming post, but if you're interested in trying them, the links should get you started)

These low minimums make it easier for me to get started and once I start it’s easier to go on. So on a ‘good’ day I’ll probably write about 3 hours and 1,200 words.

But that’s when I’m writing without a deadline. When I’ve got something due on deadline I use the project targets on Scrivener which lets me see how many words a day I need to get down to finish in time. I usually finish ahead of time so the great thing about this system is that it allows me to take a complete day off now and then without guilt. For instance I spent this morning walking around the Bukit Timah forest reserve because I didn’t have anything else ‘due’ except this questionnaire. But tomorrow I’ll be back on the next draft and my daily word quota.

What is your biggest writing time management distraction and what have you found works to overcome it?
For a while it was web surfing. I would look up something and then get distracted and go on to looking up something else and before I knew it the KanbanFlow timer would go off (break time!) and I’d realize I had a head full of fascinating facts irrelevant facts, a ton of ideas for new characters and books and hadn’t been writing at all. So now I just note down what I want to look up and look them all up during one of my ‘online’ time sessions… I usually give myself three, at the beginning of the day, at lunch time and at the end of the day. And if any time is leftover I allow myself to visit Facebook and Quora which is incentive to research stuff fast!

As we all know, writing is as much these days about building a platform to attract readers as it is getting the actual writing done. How do you fit social media into your writing time?
I’m afraid I don’t know enough about social media to talk about platforms. When my book came out I was lucky enough to have super energetic angels assigned to do publicity and they’re the ones who introduced me to writers and bloggers and readers who have since become friends. Now I’ve met them I read their blogs and books whenever I can and they’ve been very supportive and encouraging of my efforts and books.

If you could tell your writing start up self anything about managing your writing time, what would it be?
Write as much as you can. When you can’t write any more, read. When you can’t read any more, grab the dogs and get outside.
After writing over 30 plays over 20 years, Ovidia Yu wrote her first children’s book, The Mudskipper, which was shortlisted for the Scholastic Asian Book Award and the Hedwig Anuar Book Award, and Aunty Lee’s Delights, a Singapore murder mystery published by William Morrow last September. The sequel, Aunty Lee’s Deadly Special will be published in Fall 2014.

If you found Ovidia's tips as interesting and helpful as I did, please share them with your social media network through the buttons below.

If you have a question or comment for Ovidia, she'll be around to reply.  

Mar 4, 2014

The world does not need another writer blog - Time Management Tuesday Tip

When I first started on the road to creating the dreaded “author platform”, the one thing I was 100% sure of is that I did not want to be an “authors for authors” blog – a blog that caters to other authors. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach for platform building. And I’m thankful every day to my fellow authors who are out there adding value to our community. I just never could see myself doing that. Others are much more informed and have way more passion for the topics of “writer sausage making” than I do.

Over the months, though, as I’ve gotten my feet down, I’ve realized there is a specialized area that I can probably add a bit of value and (lucky me) it’s an area I tend to have some passion around (translation, don’t get me started talking about it or you may not be able to shut me up until you’ve agreed to let me professionally torture you in my area of expertise).

As I mentioned in my Writer Wednesday post Just Finish It, one of the largest issues I come across in my critique groups is writers having trouble balancing it all and getting a work across the finish line.

In my real life, not just when I’m playing Author on the internet, I am a certified project manager. I strongly believe that not only should whatever you’re working on have a project plan, your whole life should have one. Goal completion does not just happen. There is a science to time management. Even those who manage to complete their projects just fine, thank you, could always pick up a tip or trick to being more efficient.

Let’s face it, the majority of writers have a day job. Even those writers who are lucky enough to be able to write full time are juggling that with managing their writing business. Gone are the days where publishers and agents did a big chunk of that. Now writers, even traditionally published ones, but especially those who are self-published, spend countless hours on things like marketing and accounting.

Given that, I will be launching a new series called Time Management Tuesday. The series will alternate between providing information on the science of project and time management and interviews from other authors who will share their tips and tricks to making it happen.

So, without further ado:

This week’s Time Management Tuesday Tip: You must pay attention!

Time management is a science, but like the science of weight loss, one size does not fit all.

The basics of weight loss are simple – eat less, move more. But many other facets play into that. For example, some body types are more sensitive to carbohydrates than others. Some body types are genetically predisposed not to give up weight or not to lose weight through exercise.

Time management/efficiency principals work in a similar way. Essentially the basics of time management are simple – focus on the right things at the right time for the right amount of duration. But how your brain is wired to produce, will greatly affect what works and what doesn’t for you.

So what’s a writer to do? – Start paying attention.

The first step when taking on any “be more efficient” program is to pay more attention. Get off of autopilot and start understanding how you work. When are you tired? How long can you go before you need a break? What are your derailers? What keeps you from getting to it? Are you simply a procrastinator or do you have something bigger going on from an emotional perspective? Are you better at night or first thing in the morning?

There’s a stuffy old business saying in the lean manufacturing space – “We expect what we inspect.” In other words, if you want to understand something, change it for the better, you have to pay attention to it.

Over the course of the coming weeks and months, I’ll be providing templates to help you begin to sort out your own productivity style, as well as additional research on human efficiency and time management. But none of it will help if you don't start paying attention to how you work.

Stay tuned next week for an interview with cozy mystery author Ovidia Yu on her tips and tricks for managing her writer life.

If you found this interesting, please share it with your network below with the sharing buttons below.

Also, I have a great slate of authors lined up in my interview series, but am always looking for more. If you are a published author, and would like to share your time management story, leave a comment, send me an email or hit me on Twitter.

Feb 27, 2014

The Worst Day of Her Life

When my mother was sick, any time the phone rang, I reflexively cringed. Although she wasn’t living with us, we were the front-line defense for any issue at the nearby assisted living center where we had moved her after my father’s passing.

In addition to other issues, my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After three years of dealing with her disease, we were more fortunate than some, in that she still had about 50% lucid moments. There were also times, though, when she couldn’t remember my children’s names, that I wasn’t sixteen or that she had lung cancer and COPD.

“I breathe just fine,” she’d say while cursing at the staff for insisting she wear her oxygen.

Shaking off my Pavlov response to the center’s number popping up in the caller ID, I picked up the receiver.

“Hi Melinda, we have a situation with your mother and we need you to come out,” the center director said at a more frantic pace than usual.

After caring for someone with Alzheimer’s for a while, I’d learned to triage the chaos the symptoms caused. Refusal to wear her adult diaper (because she didn’t remember having an incontinence problem) would require one level of engagement. Her trying to leave the center because she didn’t believe she lived there would be another. Thankfully, over the years, we had developed a good, trusting relationship with the center staff. When the director didn’t immediately tell me what was going on, I knew we were probably looking at some kind of Deafcon 1 scenario.

“She’s not hurt, but I really need you to come as soon as you can. I’ll explain when you get here.”

I heard the noise of the commotion from my mom’s room from down the hall when I entered the center. The door to her room was open. The center director stood in the doorway and two staff attendants were in the room.

Tears streamed down my mother’s face. Short and frail, in her Tinkerbell nightgown and clutching her vintage purse, she looked like a crying child.

“Why won’t you help me find him! We have to find him,” she yelled as I entered the room. Upon seeing me, relief overcame her. “Melinda, these charlatans won’t let me call the police to find Pete.”

I spent the next couple of hours trying to help my mother understand that her husband of forty years had died, that he wasn’t coming home to take care of her and that the police couldn’t help her find him.

Hearing me saying it and reading his obituary was as painful to her as the morning she found his cold body on the bathroom floor. Added to her grief was an overwhelming shame and sadness that she hadn’t remembered something so important to her.

Looking back on it, I can pinpoint that day, that event, as the day my mother died. Sure she physically fought on for a few years after but her spirit had left the party.

Last night I caught an interview Seth Rogen on a news show talking about his testimony to Congress regarding his Alzheimer’s foundation. His mother-in-law has the disease. It was a great interview and I hope you’ll watch it. Unfortunately, a lot of Senators didn’t even bother to show up.

Today Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the US, affects 5 million people and costs our country $203 billion dollars annually. It is the only cause of death that increased from 2000 to 2010. Every 68 seconds, someone is diagnosed. If you’re looking for a great book on the topic, I highly recommend my Lotus Lit agency sister Nancy Stearns Bercaw’s book Brain in a Jar.

Both of my parents had cancer. My father, after beating cancer, died of a heart attack. I can truly say that there is no worse disease, no crueler way to die, than Alzheimer’s.

Solving a riddle as complicated as the brain isn’t easy. As Seth points out, right now, the biggest obstacle to treatment and a cure is money.

So this is a shameless plea for you to give. Give to Seth’s foundation Hilarity for Charity. Give to Cure Alzheimer’s (the highest rated Alzheimer’s charity).

If you can’t give, but want to help support the fight against this horrible disease, please help share my post or links to the foundations through your social media network. Social Media buttons are below. Thank you!

Feb 5, 2014

Writer Wednesday - Finish It!

One of my top ten all time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire. If you've never seen it, it's worth your rental money. A mix of sport, history, religion, love, inspiration and hot guys in tight shorts - what's not to love.

While talking to a couple of my critique partners recently, I was reminded of a great scene from the movie.

For those of you without video access, one of the main characters, Eric Liddell, gives a speech comparing getting through life to running a race:
You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape - especially if you've got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you're dinner's burnt. Maybe you haven't got a job. So who am I to say, "Believe, have faith," in the face of life's realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. 

Of course this quote is much more powerful when delivered with a Scottish accent :)

I have two critique partners (waving hello to them) who are fantastic writers. But they are struggling to finish their work. They both can give genuine reasons why they haven't - jobs, family, kids, illness...and of course, all of those reasons are valid. I struggle sometimes too.

For these two writers, though, I think it's more than that. I think they haven't been able to finish because they don't believe - they don't believe they are good enough or they don't believe they can.

I tell them all the time - a certain magic happens when you finish something. Suddenly you are a person who can. And how you think about yourself and your tasks, whether it's writing or anything else you are striving for in life, becomes different.

But to embrace that magic, you have to finish.

"So where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within."

To my very excellent critique partners (and all of you out there struggling to finish something) - close your eyes and believe. You are worthy.

Jan 30, 2014

"You Worry about Youself"

Photo via Ryan Hunley from YouTube

As either a parent or a kid, at sometime in your life I'm betting you have either said or had said to you something comparable to one or more of the following:

  • If Jimmy jumped off a bridge would you follow him?
  • I'm not Sally's mom
  • You've got plenty of lumps in your own potatoes (one of my mom's favorites). Similar sentiments include things such as "since when is your garden free of weeds" and the biblical oldie but goody "Let he without sin cast the first stone".
Last night I caught myself leveling the "You worry about yourself and let your sister and me worry about her" variation of this. The momism fling occurred in reply to my four-year-old daughter's insistence that her sixteen-year-old sister should have to go to bed at the same time as her so that she's not cranky.

And that's when I had an aha moment and realized maybe I should be taking my own advice.

As my day had worn on, I had hit a place where I felt overwhelmed with the tasks in front of me. Not because I couldn't accomplish them, but more because I felt like even if I did them, it probably wouldn't matter. The conversation in my head went something along the lines of the following:
  • OMG. My twitter feed fills up with 1000+ tweets a second. I bet everyone else's does too. Nothing I say is going to get through that noise
  • Another link reminding me that even if I did finish or publish my book there are 300,000 novels published every year. How will anyone ever find mine?
  • Do you know how many established blogs there are out there? Why would anyone read mine!
  • Great, another update on google's algorithm. No recognition for guest posting now. No one is ever going to find me.
  • The majority of businesses still fail within in the first five years and there are more businesses being started now than at any time in history.
  • This one article alone list 35+ places I should be delivering content to. I will never keep up.
  • Sigh. "So and so Queen of my occupation" is so much better than I am. What am I doing?
I'm sure you have some variation of this self pity party that you play in your head sometimes too. As we look around at the vast activity that happening in the social media space, it's easy to get lost in the feeling that we will never break through all the noise and be heard. Whether we're starting a new business, launching a new book or other creative endeavor, the fight for discovery and recognition is the same.

Of course, the answer to all of these self doubts is "so what, what are you going to DO about it?" You've chosen to do whatever it is you're doing. Hopefully, you've put together a plan to support your ultimate goal. None of the above sentiments, even if they are all true, will get you any closer to reaching said goal.

That's not to say that you shouldn't review your plan or where you are in regards to your competition. Self awareness is important. Realistically, though, you don't have a lot of options. The only choices you have are to quit, change your strategy or work harder on the one you have. 

And, if you notice, all of those options are personal decisions as well. No one in the great "out there" is going to make that choice for you. So in the end, there's really only one thing we can do:

"You worry about you."

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe and your place in it, like no matter how much you try to push the rock up the hill you just don't seem to be moving it at the same pace as everyone else, STOP. 

Put on the blinders. Work your plan. You worry about you. And the rest will take care of itself.

Jan 27, 2014

Magic Monday - Ode To The Story

I'm one of those "count your blessings" people. I believe in silver linings, possibilities and being grateful for what I have while I reach for the next level. Magic Mondays celebrates that.

     One of my favorite Tedtalks is from Daniel Crosby entitled You Aren't That Great. If you haven't ever seen it, I urge you to spend the twenty minutes it takes to view. In it, he postulates that if you are one in a million, with six billion people on the planet, that means there are 6,000 people on the planet exactly like you.

     I spent last night watching the new PBS episode of Sherlock. It's one of the few TV indulgences I allow myself.

     This weekend my four year old and I discovered a previously hidden cache of books; a holdover from our move. They previously belonged to the older kids and were meant to be handed down at some point. When we opened the box, her face beamed and she was quite sure she'd hit the jackpot.

     My dad worked for the same place fore forty years. He was a metallurgist. In the arrogance of his youth, he was sure he could revolutionize the way steel was made. In his early career, he implemented a redesign of the standard blast furnace. Later in his career, he traveled to client sites helping to troubleshoot quality issues in the steel. That a coal miner's son had even made it to college and into management, is a story all on its own.
     When he passed away, a bunch of his work group showed up at the funeral. While they were there to pay their respects, many of them also came to see each other again, to swap stories of the old days.

     These stories bonded those men, as much as I'm bonded to other fans of Holmes and Watson through the hasthag #Sherlock. As much as handing down favorite stories bonded my girls this weekend.

     As an author, we're often enamored with words. The way they sound in our heads and rolling off our tongues. The way the perfect word choice can illicit one emotion over another or the way the a subtle change in emotion can be garnered through that choice. With authors, and many readers, words are big.

    This weekend I was reminded of the power of the stories delivered by those words to connect us. Stories do more than entertain us or move us. They represent who we are. They tie us together.

    I think Daniel Crosby is right that it's true that I'm not great. We're not that great. We even may not be that unique.
    But we all have a great, unique story, a story that can inspire, entertain, move, inform or, most importantly, bind us to others. On this Magic Monday, I'm grateful for stories.

What are some of your favorite stories and how have they touched your life?

Like my blog? Never miss a post with updates delivered directly to your email
Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Jan 24, 2014

5 Tips for Getting Back on the Wagon After You've Stopped Writing

I'm in a long distant friendship. Luckily we're the types of friends that don't need constant communication to maintain our bond. Every time we get back together after some lapse, we usually fall right back into lockstep. That's both a gift and a curse.

There are times when other things have taken my attention and before I know it, a couple of weeks have passed since I communicated with my friend. At that point something strange can happen - I start to feel guilty for not communicating.

You would think that would be a push for me to pick up the phone or drop an email. Human nature being what it is, I'm now aware that that feeling can cause me to do the exact opposite.

I put it off longer. Sometimes that's because I'm still in the throws of things. I know I don't have time to write the lengthy communication that's in my head and writing something short seems "less than". Sometimes I just feel bad about not having done it and rather than dealing with that feeling I avoid it.

When this occurs, the more time passes, the more intense the feeling becomes and the more I avoid it.

Of course, this experience can apply to lots of things in life. Like working on a novel. Or, in my case, keeping up with social media.

You would think that the answer is simple  - duh, get going!

But I've found that to be easier said than done. Starting again is hard. I'm sure a psych major in the group could lend something scientific to the conversation to corroborate the feeling I have that keeps me avoiding my task. I so wish I could just get going.

But here I am. So If you are like me, and find that you have fallen off the wagon of doing something you very much would like to do, but are struggling to get past your feelings for neglecting your task to get started again, I offer the following tips.

  1. Recognize out loud that this is where you are -
    You have to get honest with yourself that you are in avoidance mode. You have to admit that you are in this place because you feel ashamed that you let your goal go or that you feel like a failure or that your mad at yourself for your poor time management skills or whatever personal demon is tied up in this for you. For many people, it's not as simple as "I got busy and then it got hard". From my experience, if your procrastinating restarting, there is usually something bigger tied to it.
  2. Review how you got there and look for ways to keep it from happening again -
    In September I had a death in my family. This was my derailing event. I spent October in mourning. By November I was off to the Nano races. Then came the holidays and the need to edit my nano book while my day job was light during said holidays.

    But looking at closer, those things just exasperated the fact that I didn't have a good social media plan in place to start with. I stopped writing my blog because every post required a lot of thought as to what it was going to be. I didn't have any articles in reserve and I wasn't all too sure what I wanted my blog to be when it grew up. So when derailers happened, I was eager to use them to avoid dealing with bigger underlying issues.

    I was going to recommend this as a last step. But as I was working my way back on my own wagon, this step was important in helping me to get through the next steps. I now have a plan to deal with the above. And having that plan makes starting again easier because I know I'm more likely to be successful this time. Sometimes the answer is just "stuff happens" but often times there are bigger lessons to learn if you go looking.
  3. Work up to it -
    Of course the obvious solution to fixing this dilemma is to just dive back in. But I've found for me I can't do that. My internal systems recoil at the thought of it. Whether it's getting back on to the diet train or the writing wagon, if you've been struggling to make the leap, I highly recommend that you set a date in the future. Everyday think about it happening. Roll over in your head what you need to do to prepare. It will still feel awkward on the day you are supposed to start. But it won't feel as awkward as it would have. You'll have regained some of the momentum you lost from stopping even though you haven't done the deed.
  4. Ask for help -
    Find a friend or loved one who you can share your shame with and your plan for overcoming it. You need to let yourself off the hook and it's easier to do when someone else tells you it's not the end of the world. The understanding you get will also help you want to stick to your plan for relaunch.
  5. Dive in -
    In the end, you still just have to man up. It will feel awkward (this does for sure). But you will stumble your way through. I promise. It will not end in disaster. And in fact, you will feel a sense of accomplishment once you are a few days, posts, chapters, friend communication exchanges (or whatever fits for progress in the wagon you are trying to climb back on) into it.
For me, I'm hoping this marks a more thoughtful return to my social media adventure. I'm coming back armed with a better plan for success.

How about you? Have you ever quit something you didn't want to and then had a hard time starting again? If so, what tricks worked for you to get going?

Curiosity Seekers

Copyright © Melinda O'Neill Design by Dzignine