Setting Productivity Goals for March

Setting Productivity Goals

I have three major projects I’m working on this month — revising my novel, increasing frequency and quality of posts published on this blog, and doing content marketing to improve my freelance writing portfolio.

I’ve been working on these things pretty consistently lately, but I’ve noticed two trends:

  1. My biggest personal and professional goal is to revise my novel, but when I feel like it gets too hard (which is often), I shift my focus to more fun stuff, like scheming up new writing and money-making projects. I’m not making fast enough progress on my manuscript.
  2. I’m not spending enough hours per day on my own projects (any of the ones listed above). I averaged only 1.2 hours of “deep work” a day during the month of February.

I need to increase the amount of time I spend furthering my goals, and the time I do spend needs to be more judiciously allocated. Gotta spend my time in proportion to how much these things matter to me.

So today I set two goals for the remainder of March, goals that I hope will help me improve my discipline and stay focused on my true priorities.

Goal #1: Increase my hours of “deep work” in March.

The term “deep work” comes from this incredibly motivating book I read (and blogged about) called Deep Work; Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.

So as a writer, I’m trying to increase the number of hours I remain focused, without distraction, on the hard work of writing.

Before I can increase anything, I have to know my baseline.

So I did an inventory on my “deep work hours” in February. Not great. I spent just 36 total hours focused on achieving my long-term writing goals. With 28 days in the month, that averages out to only 1.2 hours a day–though in reality I logged a total of zero hours on 12 of those days, meaning that on the days that I did work, I worked closer to 2.25 hours.

Good that I know I have the capacity/stamina to work deeply. Bad that I didn’t work on personal stuff for TWELVE whole days.

Then I looked at my work output. During the month of February, I:

  • wrote 5 blog posts
  • created a content marketing plan (but no content)
  • reread and made notes on my novel
  • solidified my characters and my plot
  • line-edited one short story

That’s it. Notice that I only WROTE five things. Blog posts. No short stories to keep me warmed up or content for that content marketing gig.

Increasing the number of hours I spend focused will increase the amount of work I produce. So I’ve set myself a goal to increase my number of deep work hours to three hours every week day and one hour every day of the weekend. With 17 days left in March, that’s 58 hours of deep work for the remainder of this month.

Goal #2: Spend those 58 hours in proportion to my priorities.

First, I had to determine what my priorities are.

For me, that was the easy part. Revise my novel. Improve my blog. Write content for Sound Town Phonics. Build my freelance writing portfolio. In that order.

But what about proportion? How much more important is my novel than my blog? Or my blog versus my freelance writing business?

For now, content marketing and my freelance portfolio are least important to me, but I know that I still want to do them. So I determined the least amount of time I could spend on them per month, which is 5 hours each.

My novel and my blog are most important. But not equal. My ultimate goal is to be a published novelist. Only one of these two activities–creating a well-written, polished novel–gets me closer to that goal. So I decided that I want to spend only a quarter of my time on my blog and three-fourths of it on my novel.

But deciding on these two goals isn’t enough. I have to find a way to hold myself accountable to meeting them.

Tracking My Goals

When I was a teacher, I taught my students to set S.M.A.R.T. goals.

  • Specific
    Measurable
    Achievable/Attainable
    Relevant
    Timely/Time-Limited

So while my goals are to complete 58 hours of deep work and spend those hours in proportion to each project’s importance, I still felt like I needed to get more specific than that.

Step 1: Divide up the 58 hours of deep work planned for March.

I determined that five hours a month was the minimum I could spend on my two least-important projects and still be successful. Then I divided the remaining 48 hours into 75% novel, 25% blog–as previously determined.

Then I wrote it out on a sticky note.

March Goals for Deep Work

Step 2: Measure completed hours on a tracker.

Then I needed a place to track (or measure) those hours of deep work.

My awesome planner just so happens to have a super cool project plan section at the front, as if designed specifically for me, and I’d already been tracking my deep hours worked (albeit aimlessly).

So all I had to do was put that pink stick note in my planner, right below this tracker:

This is where I will track my hours of deep work, in tick marks using the appropriate color listed above. With different colored tick marks, I can make sure I’m monitoring my allocation of hours, not just the total sum of hours.

You’ll notice that as of that picture being taken, I’d already spent one and a half hours on blogging. In order to stick with my plan, that means that I have only ten and a half hours of blogging remaining this month. And in theory, if I use up those twelve hours quickly because blogging is the “fun” alternative to revising my novel, then, well, I use them up. And then the only left for me to do is work on my novel.

I think I’m going to love/hate this strategy.

Learning the Value of Editing from The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

Learning to Edit with The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself is a craft book for writers who looove to write and haaaaaate to edit (double the vowels, for emphasis). This book is for writers who love the rush of creating, pulling characters and worlds and stories out of their brains, but aren’t so interested in the other aspects of writing. It’s also for writers who don’t think editing is necessary. They think their work is already good. And–I suspect most writers fit into this category–it’s for writers who are intimidated by the edit. They know they need to do it, because everyone says so, but they’re not sure the exact reason why (and definitely not sure how).

If this is you, you need to read this book.

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I expected The Artful Edit to be prescriptive do-this-do-that kind of book, but it isn’t. Instead, it is part strategy (what to look for in the macro vs micro edit), part case study (we see how Fitzgerald rewrote The Great Gatsby with help from his editor Max Perkins, including illustrative before-and-after examples), and part ode to the art of editing and masterful editors who’ve come before us (including a surprisingly interesting section on the history of editing since ancient times).

Overall, it succeeded in investing me in the importance of editing.

A warning, however: Read The Great Gatsby before reading this book. Otherwise it’ll feel like 215 pages of one of those conversations at a bar where the other two people spend an hour talking and “oh my god, remember when…?” about their favorite TV show–and you haven’t seen even an episode.

Don’t be that guy. Read Gatsby first.

The Artful Edit - Editing with pencil

 

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

“Students are generally taught to rely on others to see it on their behalf, and risk creating a dubious dependency.”

– Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

In other words, it’s up to us to edit ourselves. We must train ourselves to catch the majority of our grammar and spelling mistakes, sagging pacing, and limp characters. No finishing the first draft of something and immediately pushing it out the door to go on the agent or publication hunt. You gotta edit first.

As a heads up, this book did an excellent job convincing me that I should take editing seriously, but it did not provide much in the way of concrete strategies. That’s not what this book is for, so don’t go in expecting it.

Instead, here’s how you should read this book:

TWICE.

  1. The first time, read to soak up inspiration. Learn about how even the great F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote terrible cliches and lengthy, boring descriptions his first time through a draft. Get motivated and resolve to edit your work.
  2. After you’ve identified problem areas in your manuscript, skim through and reread those specific sections in The Artful Edit that would be the most helpful to the issue you need to solve.

Why the second read? I gained a whole new layer of understanding and skills from The Artful Edit when reading it a second time. By rereading only the sections that related to my current manuscript, I was able to read more more slowly and catch more.

And what are those specific sections in The Artful Edit?

While I do highly recommend reading this book all the way through once, for motivation and inspiration, here’s a quick list of the different skills that Bell covers in this book, if you’d prefer to just target your weaknesses.

Gaining Perspective

This section is all about how to step back from your work and literally get a different perspective on it.

Bell recommends:

  • print it out on paper
  • write by hand
  • don’t let too much time pass between draft and edit
  • or, walk away from it for a long time
  • read it out loud to people
  • change the font
  • write in a new place
  • let it gooooooo (*cue Elsa!)
  • don’t let it go yet
  • imagine your ideal reader
  • collaborate with someone else
  • hang it out on a clothes line or lay it out on your floor (who has this kind of space?)

Regardless of the method chosen, the goal is to find a way to look at your manuscript differently. Even employing a simple visual trick like changing the font or printing it out can help a writer see it from a fresh perspective–and have an easier time spotting the areas that need work.

The Big Picture: Macro-Editing

After gaining perspective, it’s time to change the things that aren’t working.

The macro-edit looks at the big-picture issues of a manuscript. While there are many things that could fit into this category, Bell covers:

  • Intention — the overarching aim of your work
  • Character — their palpability, credibility, and motive
  • Structure — rhythm and tension
  • Foreshadowing — writing a page-turner or deepening your theme
  • Theme — leitmotiv (thematic symbols “gingerly” sewn in)
  • Continuity of Tone

Bell walks us through each element above, and uses the revision process of The Great Gatsby as an example, showing us how Fitzgerald’s initial draft was lacking, where Max Perkins provided helpful pointers, and then what edits Fitzgerald made.

The Details: Micro-Editing

“The micro-edit is the once-over you give your text much more than once. You will likely encounter a greater number of errors than in the macro-edit, but they are often simpler to solve than macro-problems.”

The micro-edit looks at the small, line-by-line stuff. It “thrives on a writer’s ability to ‘read slowly'” and catch the details that would easily be overlooked in a swift, breezy read-through.

That includes:

  • Language – keep it fresh, precise, active, and real
  • Repetition – repeated words and expressions
  • Redundancy – expressed that thing more than once?
  • Clarity – do people understand what you’re saying here?
  • Authenticity – in image and dialogue
  • Continuity – in visuals and character
  • Show and Tell – cutting out summary
  • Beginnings, Endings, and Transitions

Interestingly, Fitzgerald was better at micro-editing than macro and so there were fewer instances where Perkins edited Fitzgerald by the line. Because of that, Bell was able to use examples from other writers and works to illustrate her points in this section.

Edit - just pencil

Conclusion

People tend to be naturally stronger at either the larger picture or the details. Macro-editing or micro-editing, but not usually both.

So when it’s time to edit our manuscript, we need perspective to see our work properly, and then we need to be honest with ourselves about which area is our weakness.

And then we we can’t run away from it.

“Now take your strength and put it on a high shelf. Concentrate on the kind of editing that isn’t easy for you, the kind you may even hate.”

This is how we become stronger writers–by being disciplined editors willing to face down and tackle our problem areas.

“The debate continues on whether you can teach someone to write; I know, unequivocally, that you can teach someone to edit.”

And with that, my dear writers, go forth and edit. You must. It’s an essential part of the editing process.

How to Appreciate and Implement Feedback From a Rejection Letter

NOPE - Rejection Letter

I just got the best rejection letter I’ve ever received, and I’m really excited about it.

Remember “Byresh,” the first short story I ever submitted? Well, the rejections are starting to come in. I got a standard one a week ago, which was fine.

But then yesterday, a helpful, thoughtful rejection letter arrived in my email inbox, and I’ve read enough blogs to know that a rejection like this is uncommon and extremely valuable. Instead of a boiler-plate “Dear Writer–No thank you,” I got a personalized letter telling me that they wouldn’t be accepting my short story and why.

Here’s the letter:

What I was happy to hear? That I did some things well, like:

  • Generally well written — Wohoo!
  • A memorable character. Great.
  • Tied Byresh’s situation in well with the bigger picture of homelessness.

What I was even happier to hear? HOW TO GET BETTER! I just got free feedback on my story from an editor who reads short stories all the time and knows what they’re doing (I assume).

Implementing Feedback From This Rejection Letter

Before submitting, I had numerous people read “Byresh” and give me feedback, which I implemented. The story felt ready to go out.

And yet, it doesn’t surprise me that someone found additional things that could make the story stronger. I still have more to learn as a writer.

I wrote down the feedback from the story, splitting them up by general category:

Character
  • Put in a sentence or two explaining Rob.
Plot
  • Tighten up the beginning.
  • Strengthen the transition between flashbacks so what’s happening is clearer.
Setting
  • Set the setting earlier and stronger — Setting is one of my weaker points as a writer, so this doesn’t surprise me at all.
Dialogue
  • Reread dialogue for repetition and “mundane” stuff (though I imagine mundane means slightly different things to different people).
Other
  • Find a different publication for “Byresh”, since it didn’t quite fit their “out of the box” requirement.

NOPE Subheader Pic 1.5

Keeping Rejections–and Feedback–In Perspective

And of course, the Number One rule on receiving feedback is to keep it all in perspective.

Some of the feedback I already agree with (I know my setting could be stronger), but other things, like the mundane dialogue and the pacing of the beginning, are things that I’ll need to think about. I’ll need to reread my story and see where, how, or even if I’ll change things.

And that’s what the process of getting and implementing feedback is all about–critically analyzing and then critically accepting or rejecting.

Hooray for rejection letters!

Uneven Character Development in The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani

Shoemaker's Wife Cover

I love reading a novel with an expansive timeline, showing us years of character development. And I love historical fiction. So I was ready to fall in love with The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani.

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I didn’t love it.

The first two thirds of this novel were my favorite. Trigiani captures the alpine slopes and rhythms of life in northern Italy with clear descriptions and beautiful imagery, and the story lines of Enza and Ciro’s respective starts in New York City–especially the Metropolitan Opera and Little Italy–snap with vitality.

*Per usual, there are some BIG SPOILERS ahead. If you haven’t read the book yet, WAIT!*

The story starts to lose momentum when they move to Minnesota. This is partially because their fate as a couple has already been determined, and their adventures are intertwined moving forward. I was always more invested in their individual lives than in their love story, way more interested in the ways they were kicking butt solo than in the “Will they get together?” question. In addition, Minnesota doesn’t feel as vivid, as if Trigiani has Italy and Little Italy in her blood but learned about Minnesota through secondhand descriptions.

And while Enza and Ciro’s love story does have beautiful moments, the novel’s true strength is in its other relationships–between family and friends. I teared up multiple times at different points in Ciro’s relationship with his brother, especially their poignant last scene. The nuns love for Ciro shines through in their actions. And Enza’s relationship with Laura is realistic and touching.

Shoemaker's close crop 2

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

I would come back to The Shoemaker’s Wife if I:

  1. Wrote a multiple perspective story and couldn’t tell why one character was stronger than the other.
  2. Needed an example of a novel with an expansive timeline.

Uneven Character Development in a Multiple-Perspective Novel

This novel has two main characters — Enza and Ciro. But overall, Ciro is a much stronger character and Enza feels one-dimensional.

How did this happen?

One Character Changes More. The Other is Too Perfect.

Ciro changed and grew the most, while Enza stays relatively stable in her wants and behavior.

Ciro is lovably imperfect, a good soul who makes a healthy, normal level of human mistakes as he grows up. He starts the novel as a mischievous ten year old and becomes a dreaming, scheming teenager who loves girls. Throughout his twenties, he has sex before marriage and enjoys his youth. He enlists in the army to fight in World War II to gain U.S. citizenship, and comes back conflicted about war, his country, and human nature. He makes mistakes throughout his marriage to Enza.

Enza, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to change as she grows up. She is loyal, helpful, and selfless as a ten year old girl, and she is loyal, helpful, and selfless as a 50-something year old woman.

She’s also too perfect. Throughout her entire life, her goal is to send money home to Italy to help her family build a home (that she’ll never see again), and there is zero resentment that she has to send money home, even when she’s living in terrible conditions, when she is poorly dressed at a party, or when she has to make decisions to work instead of enjoy her youth. Even during her twenties in New York City, she’s pretty tame. And then she forgives Ciro way too easily when he shows up on her wedding day (to someone else!). The most scandalous thing she does is break one man’s heart to be with Ciro. In the grand scheme of the book, that’s a “meh” flaw.

Because I can relate to Ciro’s imperfection more, I connect with him better. Enza is too sterile for me to love.

One Character Has Stronger Relationships

Ciro has the strongest relationships with other people.

Throughout the book, Enza remains relatively untethered, developing strong relationships with only Ciro and Laura. Even her relationships with her father early in the book or with Pappina later feel flat and insignificant.

Ciro, on the other hand, has incredible relationships with numerous people. Enza, of course. But also the nuns. His brother Eduardo. Even his relationships with Remo, his mentor shoemaker, and Luigi are stronger.

Strong relationships include conflict. If you’re close to someone, things aren’t going to be perfect all the time. Enza’s relationships feel fluffier, less deep, whereas Ciro’s relationships include conflict and go through different phases.

Shoemaker's close crop 1

An Example of a Novel with an Expansive Timeline

The Shoemaker’s Wife covers a lot of time and distance. It follows Ciro and Enza from age ten to well into their thirties (and Enza into her fifties), and from the villages of the Italian Alps to the tenement housing and theaters of New York City to the lakes of Minnesota.

I love novels like this. My favorite novel, Americanah, does it, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan does it, and Cutting for Stone does it. To name just a few.

I searched online (and the old-fashioned way, in my writing books) to find a way to describe this kind of timeline in a novel–one that spans decades of a character’s life, versus just a year or two. And I couldn’t find a term.

So I made one up myself.

Expansive Timeline — Refers to a novel’s timeline that spans an extended period of a characters life. Sounds cooler than “long timeline.”

You’re welcome to borrow it.

Expansive timeline novels require an even stronger handle on character development. A writer must be solid in each character’s personalities and motivations–because the book follows them for so long. In a novel with a short timeline, the writer can just say, “Hey, this happened in my character’s past, therefore she’s acting this way.” But in an expansive timeline novel, the reader SAW those characters grow up. They watched the character’s development as a human. And therefore, the writer has to be even more careful to craft a story with natural character motivations. If a character “wouldn’t” act that way, the reader will be the first to notice.

Conclusion

It all comes down to character development. Short timeline or expansive timeline, all characters must have well-solidified personalities and motivations. Otherwise the book falls flat.

Magical Realism in Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel

Magical Realism in Like Water for Chocolate - book cover

Magical realism isn’t one of my preferred genres. In fact, it usually gets sifted to my “Avoid That” pile, along with horror and suspense (and most mysteries). There’s something about it I don’t really like.

So I will admit that when I picked up Like Water for Chocolate, I didn’t realize it was written in magical realism. Don’t know how I didn’t though. The back cover reads:

“A tall-tale, fairy-tale, soap-opera romance, Mexican cookbook and home-remedy handbook all rolled into one.”  – San Francisco Chronicle

I mean, that sounds amazing–and it also sounds VERY much like magical realism. Like, duh, Virginia.

Rose for Like Water for Chocolate

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I think I might like magical realism. I’m not completely converted, but I definitely read this entire book with bated breath. What will happen next? Will Tita find true love? Could I make that recipe in real life?

It’s a beautiful book. The language is exquisite, and the story is romantic and strange and sensual and unsettling (in a good way). It’s about one family and the traditions they’ve passed down generation to generation. It’s a cook book (kinda). It’s a love story (definitely). It starts with an inscription that reads:

“To the table or to bed,
you must come when you are bid.”

I like the sound of that.

And it’s so different than anything I’ve read before.

One of the best parts of this book is how much it made me realize that I haven’t read much work by Mexican artists. I’ve read a little by Mexican-American writers and a little more by Latin American writers, but not a lot by Mexican writers about Mexico.

And that’s such a huge shame. It’s almost embarrassing how little I know of Mexican culture, considering how many of the students I worked with in Oakland are from Mexico and still have family there. Sure, I know about the bigger holidays and some of their food. But what about the more subtle things?

Not having read much Mexican literature, this book made me realize how I am in danger of having a “single story” about Mexico.

With her best-selling novel . . . Laura Esquivel has managed to pierce the gringo heart of America like no other Mexican artist before her.” – San Francisco Examiner

So true.

Now, what other Mexican literature would you recommend I read?

Magical Realism in Like Water for Chocolate

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

Magic realism, chiefly Latin-American narrative strategy that is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction.

Encyclopedia Britannica

As a writer, Like Water for Chocolate would be an excellent place to start to study magical realism in action.

On the second page, Tita cries so much at birth that when her tears have dried, “Nacha swept up the residue the tears had left on the red stone floor. There was enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack–it was used for cooking and lasted a long time.”

We’re only on the second page, and the magic is there. No one questions tears so abundant that when they dried, they left behind salt. Or that the salt wouldn’t get wasted.

The book is sprinkled through with those elements, where things are going along realistically–humans and nature behaving the way I learned in science class–and then Boom! Crazy things happen like Tita cooking her pain and sadness into a cake so that all who eat it weep and vomit, or Gertrudis becoming so full of lust that she sets the shed on fire.

Realistic, realistic, mythical. Repeat.

And even when the book is moving along at a quick clip–with the kinds of plot twists, character development, and cause-and-effect situations that a traditional story would have–Esquivel doesn’t let you forget you’re reading magical realism. Her descriptions are lyrical, her word choice can be intense, and every chapter is tied to a recipe, easy to identify with their present tense verbs and tasty ingredients.

Conclusion

If I were going to write a book in the style of magical realism, I would reread Like Water for Chocolate, taking notes on the way Esquivel slips in magical moments without blinking and maintains an aura of magic even when “normal” things are happening.

And it’s a relatively short book, especially compared to other well-known books like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, so it would be an easy source text.

Rose for Like Water for Chocolate

Oh, and for a giggle, watch the movie trailer.