NaNoWriMo Prep 2016

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month every year for the past eight years (and met the target goal four of those years). I love the sense of camaraderie and good spirit associated with the event, and the feeling of accomplishment for having met my goal has always been worth the strenuous daily word counts.

This November is different for me because I’m currently elbow deep in revisions on last November’s novel. I’m hesitant to start a new project and I’m struggling with the idea of counting 50,000 words of revision instead. I’m saddened by the idea of sitting this month out, but also questioning the wisdom in beginning a new manuscript. In short, I’m stuck.

While I decide what my November writing schedule is going to look like, here are some of the things that I’m doing in preparation for NaNoWriMo (just in case):

Selecting Playlists: I use 8tracks for my  music fix while writing. I can’t handle listening to lyrics when I’m in story mode but I love having some emotional music playing, especially during the really heavy scenes. Finding music that suits the tone and setting of your novel can be time-consuming, so getting a playlist together now is a nice way to help your future self out and try on the skin of what you’ll be writing next month. One of my all-time favourites is the Journey soundtrack by Austin Wintory. Seriously… so good.

A Full Pantry/Freezer: I’m a bit of a food prepper at the best of times, but with a chill in the air my foraging kicks into high gear. This impulse helps immensely come word-marathon season – any time saved on basic human need stuff can be used for writing, afterall.  Many meals can be made ahead of time and frozen, or you can spend these next two weeks testing some recipes for some one-pot meals that’ll cook up quick in between chapters. When possible, choosing whole, healthy foods can be a good way to save time on snacks and meals and give your brain a boost; I’ll be stocking up on nuts, dried fruits, and a big bag of baby carrots for snacks (plus a box of my favourite cookies as a reward).

Honing My Daily Schedule: I tend to use October as a month to reevaluate my daily routine and audit my behaviour. Winter has a different creative energy for me, so it’s useful to reassess my habits ahead of time so I can come at the darker months with my toolbox full. This could mean streamlining my afternoon routine, carving out some time for my morning SADS lamp, or adjusting when/how often I walk the dogs. Consider trying out some of my favourite productivity tools to see if they’ll work for you this November.

Wetting the Soil: This month I’m watching a load of documentaries, reading whatever I can get my hands on, and spending more time in the woods. A trip to the museum or library, reading scientific magazines, taking a free online course, or following rabbit trails on Wikipedia as your curiosity leads are all great ways to enrich your imagination and grease your creative gears. Drench yourself in trivia and histories this month. Consider it ample hydration for the soil of the story you want to grow.

Gathering Inspiration: I have half dozen books in my home library that I always pick up when I’m feeling down about my writing, and I keep them even closer during NaNoWriMo. If you have a book (or six) that reminds you of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place, gather them up. NaNoWriMo pep talks are great sources of inspiration, but you never know when you might need an added boost from one of your faves.

Now that I’m writing full-time, the pace of National Novel Writing Month doesn’t seem quite so breakneck, but I remember all too well a time when drafting 50,000 words in 30 days seemed impossible. If you’re new to NaNoWriMo or struggling with how this whole crazy thing is going to go down, watch this site for an upcoming post with some tips for getting the most out of your keyboard this November.

In the meantime, happy prepping!

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Writing Playlists: October Edition

I like to listen to instrumental music while I write – most often something that fits the mood of the story I’m working on and gets me immersed in the scene. This autumn I’m doubly steeped in spooky as I prepare for Halloween and work on revisions for my supernatural murder mystery novel, Steep. Here are some of the 8tracks playlists I’ve got on this month:

scientists library 8tracks.jpg

The Scientist’s Library, a collection by yourfavouritechild. A chill blend of classic jazz that’s good for just about any situation.

secret

What we do is secret, a collection by boldly. Mellow and melancholy, with a touch of adventure.

thoushalt.jpg

I: Thou Shalt Hit the Books, a collection by Igniparous. A solid classically-themed instrumental collection.

librarymist-copy

A Library in the Mist, a collection by hulloemily. A little  mysterious. A little sombre. A little spooky. Good stuff for supernatural magicks.

What are you listening to this October?

Quarterly Goals: Fall 2016

Autumn is my favourite season: sweaters and socks are once again an option, the air smells like woodsmoke and leaf mould. I can turn off the AC and turn open the windows, and drink as many hot beverages as I like; things are good.

This fall is my first using the quarterly goals system and since fall is (usually) my most productive time of year I’m looking forward to seeing just how much I can tick off my to-do list over the next three months.

Here’s what I’m planning:

Complete Current Revision of Steep:

This one is going to be my biggest challenge. I’m currently about a tenth of the way through revising (and retyping) my last manuscript, and to get this done in time means that every day is going to feel like NaNoWriMo from now until December 31st. I’m making good progress and gaining speed, so I’m optimistic that I can have this thing ready for Beta readers at the start of 2017.

Four Short Stories Revised:

Revising my current novel, Steep, has really hamstrung my gumption to revise anything else, and first drafts of short stories continue to pile up. I’d like to take a look at a few of these this fall and get them closer to human consumption.

Four New Recipes Learned:

Pretty straightforward. I’ve been honing my skill at canning these past few weeks, and I’d like to continue that trend by learning a couple of new canning recipes, as well as a new dinner or two.

Twelve Books Read:

While I’m still about a month behind on my 2016 year-long challenge to read a book a week, I’m hoping to keep up my current momentum until the end of the year. Shouldn’t be too hard considering the quality of my current TBR pile.

Twelve Letters Written:

Postcards count, too. Between some new penpals, reconnecting with old penpals, and my usual correspondence with friends and family this should go off without a hitch. I’m planning on trying a few new tricks with formatting (like cross-writing), and excited to break out my Halloween-themed postage stamps.

Twelve Game Nights w/ John:

My husband and I are both avid gamers, but our daily work schedules are quite different. This can make it hard for us to sit down for an hour or so at the same time and move some pieces around a board, so I’ve added this to my quarterly goals with the hope of finding a rhythm that works for both of us. We’ve purchased some great new titles recently, including Mysterium and Concordia, and I’m looking forward to further exploring their mechanics.

Eight Dog Hikes:

I walk the dogs multiple times a day, but my favourite outings with them are the woodsy, dirt-trail hikes that we do on weekends. With the weather getting colder, and my dogs getting older, hiking every weekend this quarter might not be an option, but I’m sure we can get some good ones in before the snow flies. This past Saturday we hiked a new trail, got a little lost, and found a cool footbridge I’d like to visit again, so. . . *tick*.

Two Online Courses Completed:

I enjoyed taking some free courses through Coursera last quarter, and have my eyes on some paleobiology and history courses this fall.

 Six Finished Knitted Objects:

With the cooler weather comes more comfortable knitting. I’m aiming to have a few more pairs of socks and a couple of new sweaters completed by the end of the year, plus an item or two to give away at Christmas.

Practice ukulele for a half hour, twice a week:

Would love to learn a few new strumming patterns – and get better at playing an E chord!

Repair rust damage/scratches on Beetax:

Our car, Beetax, is 16 years old and needs some TLC before the road salt goes down. The garage got cleaned out as per last quarter’s goal, so they’ll be stabling indoors this winter.

Send out Christmas cards to family and friends:

Last year I did hand-drawn cards. We’ll see.

Organise creative supplies closet:

I have a closet full of papers, paints, supports, clay, fabric, you name it, and it needs a good revamp to make everything more accessible.

Print, frame, and hang photos for picture collage:

Pretty self-explanatory. Bought some frames a month ago and would like to get them on the wall.

Operation Stashbuster – all yarn must fit neatly in steamer trunk by year’s end:

I have an obscene amount of yarn. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except that it’s all over the place and a lot of it needs winding/sorting into cakes or skeins. I’ve got a few good patterns for stash-busting in my arsenal and I’m using them this fall. If what’s left doesn’t fit into the huge steamer trunk that it calls home by the end of this quarter I’m kicking it to the curb come January 1st.

Phew! It’s going to be a busy quarter, but I’m confident that I can achieve my goals if I put my mind to it, and all the extra caffeine and sugar that the season brings can’t hurt. I’m debating whether it’s a good idea to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, considering I’m still waist-deep in revisions of last November’s project, but I’ve taken part every year of the past 8 (with 4 wins under my belt), so it’s  a tough decision. I guess I’ll need to do some soul-searching.

If you’ve set yourself some quarterly goals, be sure to comment below – I’d love to see what you’re working towards.

Happy autumn!

 

Featured Image: “Halloween Wishes” by Miwok is licensed under CC0 1.0

Getting the Work Done: Tools to Fight Procrastination

 

I am one of the world’s best procrastinators.

Admittedly this is a difficult thing to measure as most people are pretty private about their failures and procrastination is, by and large, failing – failing to start, failing to make progress, failing to finish, failing to act – but if ten thousand hours is the amount of practice required to gain expertise in a particular field, then please consider me a master of procrastination.

For as long as I can recall I’ve been honing my craft. As a child, I would wait until I could hear my grandmother’s footsteps coming down the hallway before rushing to get ready for school. Homework assignments with weeklong deadlines were feverishly started (and completed) the night before their due dates. Once, I left the creation of a handknit gift until mere hours before the recipient’s party. In college, I consistently threw together last-minute essays that I had been given a month to complete. I am no stranger to all-nighters.

It’s not something that I’m proud of, despite my apparent skill, and it’s clear to me that procrastination has had a negative impact on my personal and professional life. It’s a shallow-feeling victory to squeak past the finish line when I know that I could have done a better job if I hadn’t procrastinated (and all without the white-knuckle, adrenaline-charged 12 to 24 hours that preceded). I have a laundry list of projects that have never seen the light of day because I am too disorganised (or scared) to actually start or finish them.  It is a major bummer to have a day pass without having accomplished anything of value. Our time, and willpower, are limited, and so making the best use of those resources is, I think, one of the most important skills a person can learn.

As authors, we often have to set our own deadlines and the last-minute scrambles begin to lose their charm pretty fast when you’re in charge of the clock. We all have our own particular styles of working, but for those of us who don’t enjoy the self-inflicted terror thrill of constantly being under the proverbial gun, here are some of the tools that I have found helpful in managing my urge to gold brick:

Quarterly Goals:

I started using this system with great effect after learning about it from author and vlogger Jenna Moreci. I tailored her system to best suit my own work style and have seen a rise in my productivity and focus since doing so. My quarterly goals span most aspects of my life – work, study, family, fitness – and I try to get the majority of my list accomplished each quarter to allow for a clean slate in the next. I schedule myself a ‘reality check’ two weeks before the quarter ends, during which I can revise a couple of my goals to better reflect what is actually attainable in the time left – I do this because I’m the kind of person who overfills her plate, and also the kind of person who flops into a heap of emotional diarrhoea when she’s overwhelmed. If you’re scrappy, and facing the impossible just makes you work harder, or the type of person who’s a little more down-to-earth with their expectations at the start of the quarter, then maybe you don’t need the reality check phase.

I print my goals onto a regular old sheet of 8.5″ x 11″ copy paper and post it above my desk. When I finish a goal, I cross that sucker off. Any still-relevant goals remaining at the end of the quarter get added to the next goal list, and I give myself a little reward if I’ve managed to complete more than 75% of my goals (usually a new book, or a nice stationery, or a fancy tea – something little but also a little lavish, to make it feel special). Repeat into infinity.

Pomodoro Technique:

I know that this method doesn’t work for everybody, but if you’ve never tried it I encourage you to give it a whirl. In essence, you are dividing each working hour into two sets of 25 minutes of focused work and two reward periods of five minutes. You work for 25 minutes on a specific task, then allow yourself 5 minutes to take a break (this could be getting up for a glass of water, dancing to a song, browsing social media… whatever). It works well for my day-to-day and lets me focus on my work without feeling bogged down or getting fatigued.

A fella by the name of Francesco Cirillo came up with this swell technique sometime in the 80’s. It’s simple, easy to use, and I’ve found it to be very effective. If you’re a traditionalist, any old kitchen timer will do but the red tomato-shaped twist-timers are the classic model for this technique (I had a pink piggy twist-timer that I used for years until its eventual demise). If you prefer something digital, the timer feature on any smartphone works just as well, or you can repurpose the browser-based tea timer Steep.it. These days I use the browser addon ‘Strict Workflow‘ for my ticking tomato needs, and it has been a terrific boon to my own productivity. I love it because if I’m being particularly neglectful I can spring it on myself with a single click, thereby snatching social media from my hands like an impatient parent.

There’s a similar system called ‘20/10‘ that I learned of from UfYH, which allocates a 10-minute break after every 20 minutes of work. These are a great tool if I’m being particularly fussy or if the task at hand is particularly difficult, but the 5-minute breaks of the Pomodoro technique is usually sufficient.

Social Media Blockers:

Another nice feature of Strict Workflow is that it can also be set to block certain distractions for the duration of the ‘work’ periods. There are plenty of free options out there for every browser, so don’t be afraid to try out a few to see which one works best for you. Most allow the user to tailor the list of blocked sites, the time allotted to blocking and breaks, and even the severity of the punishment/resistance if you try to bypass the block.

Eating the Frog:

The self-help book, ‘Eat That Frog‘, by Brian Tracey, centres on a useful tool for avoiding procrastination. The main idea is that you can build momentum in a day by starting with your hardest task (your ‘frog’) and completing said frog you can motivate yourself to move on to smaller/easier tasks, thereby mowing through your to-do list with the tenacity of a caffeine-addled llama. It’s pretty business-centred, and parts of it are definitely more useful than others, but the main principle of it has been quite helpful in my own day-to-day, so credit where credit’s due.

Making a Game of It:

It’s no secret that I love games. I go rabid for them. I will participate in just about anything if there’s scoring involved, and I love the challenge of competition. My penchant for points may lead to some pretty awkward board game nights, but I’ve learned to use my compulsion for play to my advantage.  If I’m chronically procrastinating on a project or field of work, making a game out of it allows me to approach the task from a different, and appealing angle. ‘Don’t Break the Chain‘, a year-long challenge to see just how many days I can keep up momentum for, or trying to break my own word count from they day before, are both great ways to make work feel exciting, and playful.

Lowering My Goals:

I firmly believe that procrastination is a defence against the fear of failure, so if I’m stuck on dalliance, I will not hesitate to hedge my goals.

This may sound like a cheat, but it’s one of the most useful tools I have for getting shit done. Like I said earlier, I am not resilient when overwhelmed. I melt like whipped cream on a radiator. Call it a byproduct of being raised a special snowflake, or a symptom of my anxiety disorder, but if I don’t think I can succeed at something I usually give up. In situations like these, the kindest thing I can do for myself is to lower my expectations. If I set out to write a thousand words a day and by day six I’m pooched, I lower my word count goal by half. Or three-quarters. I cut up my workload into tiny little bites that are sure to fit into my delicate milquetoast mouth, and I eat them.

And that’s that. I’m sure that as I gain experience I’ll discover more ways of putting off my desire to put things off, but for now those are the tools that have worked best for me. If there are any techniques or tools that you swear by, please mention them in the comments below, and I hope that by reading this post you have found something that will help you to break the cycle of your own procrastination.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should really get back to work.

This Is My Dog, Oscar: A Tribute on National Dog Day

This is my dog, Oscar.

He’s not a very good dog, by all accounts. He doesn’t come when he’s called, he pulls at his lead, and I’ve lost more than one pillow to his insatiable jaws.

He’s not a very good dog, but he’s my dog.

We go on a lot of adventures, most of them mundane, but when Oscar is with me even the most mundane of settings becomes exciting through his eyes. I notice things that I might not have without him. He makes me present in a way that I am not able to achieve on my own. He is always with me, day and night, waiting patiently outside the shower or sleeping at my bedside, and his presence gives me a comfort unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. He’s lying at my feet as I write this, twitching his toes at some dream-rabbit.

I have only experienced love at first sight with animals, and I did so with Oscar, too. He’s a weird looking guy, with an appearance more likely to make you laugh than sigh, and from the first moment I laid eyes on him I knew that I wanted him in my life. At five, I was at least his second owner. At twenty-five, he was my first dog – the first dog that I had ever been the sole caretaker of, and in the past five years we’ve been through a lot together: dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships, death-trap apartments and a mental health diagnosis that turned my life on a pin. He’s been by my side for the best of it all, including finding the person I went on to marry. Taking care of Oscar has taught me how to better take care of myself, and while I’m still learning on both fronts, I’m grateful for the perspective he’s given me.

I’m grateful, too, for him barking so loudly it scared off a fist-fight that threatened to drag me into it that one night in East Van. I’m grateful for our camping trips, mountain hikes, and nights spent keeping each other warm in Northern Ontario. I’m grateful for his enthusiasm for car rides, which served him well on the five-day road trip from the West Coast to our now home. I’m grateful for his patient ear when I tell him my problems or read him one of my stories so I can get a feel for the cadence, and when he sits by me, head cocked, as though he’s trying to understand every word.

He’s getting old now and I know that I’ve only got a few years left with him at best, so I’m trying to make the most of them. I hope that in the time we have left together I can give back to him a fraction of what he’s given me, because although it might sound cliche, he’s helped me to be a better person.

Perhaps I should clarify: I’m not a very good dog owner, but my dog doesn’t seem to mind.

This is my dog, Oscar.

He’s a very good dog, and he’s my dog.

Desk Plants: Improving Creativity Through Better Breathing

Creativity and the great outdoors are intrinsically linked. There’s a reason writers love isolating themselves in wilderness cabins, and that birding remains a popular hobby among wordsmiths. Painters trek through forests not only for the brilliant views but to recharge their artistic spirits. Time spent outdoors is often enough to reinvigorate a floundering project, and one 2012 study has suggested that just looking at the colour green is enough to boost creative thinking¹. But for those of us who live surrounded by brick and concrete, finding the opportunity to spend some time in nature can be challenging.

One NASA study indicated that certain plants, placed at appropriate intervals throughout an enclosed space, were effective in removing significant amounts of toxins from the air². Another study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed a possible strong link between poor air quality and poor cognitive function in test subjects³. When you consider that the average Canadian spends approximately 87% of our time indoors4, the issue of air quality as it pertains to our creative endeavours becomes even more relevant.

Enter the humble desk plant.

Who doesn’t like looking up from a particularly difficult paragraph to see a cheery flash of green? To know that my plants are not only beautifying my study with their lush colour but also improving the air, and in doing so my ability to think clearly, is a huge comfort.

Even the most grey-thumbed of us can enjoy the benefits of a desk plant. If you’re particularly forgetful (or overzealous) with watering, try your hand with something that can forgive an irregular watering schedule, like a spider plant. If low lighting is an issue, consider supplementing your workspace with a CFL lamp, or choose a plant content with little-to-no sunlight, like a snake plant or peace lily. If flowers are your thing, a pot of chrysanthemums will clean your air and look good doing it. I firmly believe that there’s a desk plant out there for every lifestyle, so keep trying until you find one that’s a good fit for you and your habits. If properly cared for, your new desk plant will benefit your creativity for years to come.

Here are a few of my personal favourites (that have also been proven to keep air clean):

Snake Plant (Sansevieria) – With over 70 varieties, finding a snake plant to love is an easy task. They grow steadily and are easy to propagate, which means a single plant could become many over the years. Able to withstand low light or direct sun and extremely drought-tolerant, they are one of the easiest plant varieties I’ve ever cared for.

Parlour Palm (Chamaedora elegans) – These little guys like low light and are very slow growing, making them a great choice for a compact or dimly lit space. They do require a little misting every now and again but are otherwise very low maintenance. Their feathery foliage is pleasant to look at and always reminds me of the rainforest.

Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum) – If there exists a houseplant easier to grow than this, I have yet to meet it. Overwatering, underwatering, low light or full sun, spider plants are just happy to be there. When well cared for they send out ‘babies’ and small white flowers, both of which are a delight to witness. Their only weakness as a desk plant is that they grow quickly and can easily get unruly in a small space, preferring to hang from a basket or ledge, but this could easily be accounted for in certain setups.

Aloe (Aloe Vera) – A useful succulent to have around, Aloe is both attractive and medicinal. Easy to care for, it prefers moderate sun and the occasional drought. You don’t have to worry about repotting too often either, as they seem to like a tight fit and they stay mostly upright – great attributes in a desk plant.

Warneckii (Dracaena Warneckii) – Handsome and easy-going Warneckii is a great option, but may be a little large for most desks. Although they may need relocating eventually (mine lives on a nearby console table) they certainly make an attractive desk mate for the first year or so and an attractive roommate thereafter. Fluoride will damage them, so if you live in an area with treated water you might want to take extra precautions when watering.

Most of the plants listed above will take just about anything thrown at them, but it’s best to give them a hand. A healthy plant with grow faster, look better, and work harder to help keep you creative. Here are a few things to keep in mind when selecting your new desk plant:

  1. How much light do they need? Some plants can get by without any natural light, others need to sunbathe on the regular. Some plants that prefer a lot of light will still get by in a dim room, but may grow more slowly or fail to produce their signature flowers.
  2. How much water do they need? A plant’s moisture needs can vary significantly depending on their species, the season, and how much sunlight their getting. It’s usually a good idea to water them a little more than usual after re-potting, just until they get established.
  3. How do they like to be watered? Species that prefer to be watered from below, like Peperomia, or prefer to keep their leaves dry, like the African violet, do well in a pot with drainage holes paired with a saucer to keep them tidy. Be sure to drain the saucer after little buddy’s done drinking, as sitting in water for a prolonged period can drown them.
  4. What kind of soil do they prefer? Be sure to select a good quality substrate that will make life easy on your new friend. Perlite (those little white balls you see in most potting soils), allows root systems to breathe and promotes drainage, and can be bought separately and added in if a very light substrate is needed. Coir, an environmentally friendly peat-like substance made from recycled coconut husks can be used instead of the  real thing in most cases. Never use topsoil on its own when potting houseplants – it’s just too dense and could suffocate your plant.
  5. How often should they be fed? Most plants like a dose of slow-release fertiliser every other month from spring through fall and a rest from the action come winter. My personal favourite is the pelleted hen manure by Acti Sol; it’s odourless, easy to handle, and gentle enough to use on pretty much anything – indoors and out.
  6. Are they poisonous? If you’ve got cats, or kids, or a curious roommate, a non-toxic plant, like a Boston fern, might be the best way to go.
  7. Are they aesthetically pleasing? We’ve all got different tastes, and a plant that I love might not float your boat in the same way. Green comes in many forms, and you’re going to be looking at your new desk plant most of each day, so take the time to find one that you find beautiful.

And that’s it! I hope this information helps you to find a desk plant that will enrich your creative lifestyle and health. If this article has been of use to you, or if you already have a desk plant that you’d like for me to share on this site in a future update, send along a photo to contact@sydmore.ca – I’d love to see them.

 

Bibliography

  1. Lichtenfeld, S., A. J. Elliot, M. A. Maier, and R. Pekrun. “Fertile Green: Green Facilitates Creative Performance.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2012. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22427383&gt;.
  2. Wolverton, B. C., PhD, Willard L. Douglas, PhD, and Keith Bounds, M.S. “A Study of Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement : Wolverton, B. C. : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.” (1989):  Internet Archive. NASA. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <https://archive.org/details/nasa_techdoc_19930072988&gt;.
  3. Allen, Joseph G., Piers MacNaughton, Usha Satish, Suresh Santanam, Jose Vallarino, and John D. Spengler. “Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments.” Environmental Health Perspectives 38.10 (2015): 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wpcontent/uploads/advpub/2015/10/ehp.1510037.acco.pdf&gt;.
  4. Klepeis, Neil E., William C. Nelson, Wayne R. Ott, John P. Robinson, Andy M. Tsang, and Paul Switzer. “The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS) A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants.” The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS) (n.d.): 6. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <https://indoor.lbl.gov/sites/all/files/lbnl-47713.pdf&gt;.