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Time Management

Find Your Focus

Perhaps you’ve seen the concept of a Word of the Year around the interwebs. The idea is to pick one word that resonates with you, something you want to really strive toward for the year.

The last couple months I’ve struggled to find my focus. I’ve fallen behind on multiple projects, hadn’t read a book in two months, and felt checked out from life, to be honest. It was like I was in a complete brain fog all the time. So it should really come as no surprise that for my word of the year, I chose FOCUS.

I picked this for so many reasons, but one of the key things for me was that it fit into all the different parts of my life. In my professional life, the word will serve to ground me and remind me of the goals I’m striving toward. I need to buckle down and focus if I expect to get anything done, because, uh, it’s just me. If I don’t do the work, mama don’t get paid.

In my personal life, the word will serve as a reminder to be present. So often my kids will tell me a story, and I find myself zoning out, thinking about the bathroom that needs to be cleaned/the groceries that need to be picked up/that appointment that needs to be made, and I totally miss what they’re saying. That kills me. Because before long, my twelve-year-old is going to be a fifteen-year-old who doesn’t want to talk to his mom.

FOCUS, as a WOTY, has proven to be incredibly inclusive of all aspects of my life. And while I haven’t been 100% successful with it thus far, I will say that having the word has helped me, well, focus.

Some key steps I’ve done to help implement my word:

  1. Limiting social media and/or phone time. I’m allowed 30 minutes a day of Twitter/Facebook/Instagram. And let me tell you, those thirty minutes fly by. Some exceptions are made if I’m learning something on SM. For instance, if one of my FB groups is having a discussion on productivity hacks, I take the time and read the responses. But if it’s just me screwing around and liking posts, that’s got a time limit. Likewise, if I’m having a conversation with a human being, the phone is down and I turn my attention to the person speaking so I’m completely present.
  1. Meditating. Of course I’ve known about meditating for a long time. True story, when I was in seventh grade, it was the “cool” thing to do, so I did it one night. And by did it, I mean I fell asleep while pretending to meditate. As an adult, I meditated for the first time several months ago, thanks to the suggestion of Marie Forleo. It didn’t stick with me then, but I picked it back up in November, and it’s been a saving grace ever since. I like the Stop, Breathe & Think app (it’s free!) because it’s easy to use, has customized-to-your-mood meditation, and offers both guided (with non-annoying voices!) and free-form where you can set a timer and background noise and go to town. I like to do this before I settle in to write for the day, as it helps clear all the other stuff I seem to have floating around in my head lately.
  1. Planning. True, this might not work for everyone. In fact, if you are normally a fly by the seat of your pants kind of person, having a plan—or even having to do a plan—might make you lose focus. For me, it’s the opposite. I like having that task list that I can easily reference to see what needs to be done next or what I can do when I find myself with some free time. That’s helped me work toward my goals—especially business—more than anything.

We’re only a month into the year, but I’ve found these three things have really helped me stick to my word of the year and be more present in my daily life, whether that be personal or professional.

Did you do a word of the year? If so, what did you choose?

6 Comments

Putting Writing First

Hey there everybody! This is my first post coming to you from the other side of becoming a parent for the first time. I’m the happy mom to a healthy two and a half month old girl.

And you know what else? I’m still a writer.

2016-11-13-dc1Before my tiny one came along, I have to admit that I had my doubts and fears. Kids take time and energy, and I always felt like I was barely meeting my word count as it was. How would I ever manage to keep up once I had parental responsibilities?

The answer, some days, is that I don’t. Kiddo has a bad day—or worse, a terrible night? Yeah. The words might not flow. Hell, I might not even get a chance to open my laptop.

And even on the good days, it sure isn’t easy. There are too many things to do in a day, and my tiny human needs so much. Even when she isn’t desperately, angrily in need of something, the guilt I feel that I should be doing more—playing with her, reading to her, teaching her calculus (okay, fine, maybe not that one…yet) is intense. The house needs cleaning, food needs cooking, laundry needs doing. It’s so easy to let the time just slip through my fingers. As I see it, in our current phase of life, I basically get to pick one thing to get done in a day outside of basic baby, life and household maintenance.

So here’s my secret—my incredibly easy, nearly impossible secret: I choose writing. Any day it possibly can be, I make that my one thing I get done.

This means my husband may come home to a disaster of a house. It means we might be having takeout (again). It means I may have to put on my headphones and pretend I don’t hear my daughter crying while my husband does his best with her.

It means I may only get about half of my pre-baby daily word count in. And it means I may have to be okay with that.

But it also means I continue to make progress. I don’t lose sight of the one thing I was determined to keep up with even after becoming a mom.

Make fun of me all you will. Tell me I’m hopelessly naïve or that I’ll see just how impossible it is once the tiny human becomes a little less tiny. You might be right. But here’s what I’m telling myself right now:

I take care of my kid, myself and my family. But after that? No excuses.

I put writing first.

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Easy Deadline Dinners for Writers!

Like many writers, I’m working on sitting less and getting healthier. I’ve always cooked six days a week, but I’m trying to focus on healthier recipes. And, I need them to be fast to get me through deadlines on top of dealing with the kids’ afterschool activities. As an aside, one thing I do to stave off the munchies while saving time is pay for the convenience of precut vegetable plates. The best recipe website I’ve run across recently is called Skinny Taste. It’s all healthy and everything has been great.

The recipe I’m including here is modified from a Weight Watchers cookbook. Both my kids love it. I call it:

Pasta with Wine Sauce

1lb ground meat (can use beef, chicken, turkey, or pork)

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1/2 cup diced onion

1 tsp Italian seasoning

1 garlic clove, minced (or 1/2 tsp garlic powder)

1 32oz can of petite-diced tomatoes

1/4 cup red wine

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp pepper

1 lb pasta (bow-ties, shells, etc)

While water is boiling for pasta, dice carrots and onion. Saute in a drizzle of olive oil until tender with seasoning and garlic. Add meat and brown. Cook pasta according to the box. Once meat is done, add can of tomatoes and wine, salt and pepper. Simmer while the pasta is cooking.

Serve topped with Parmesan cheese.

Now, speaking of deadlines…I’ve got one! Enjoy and happy cooking!

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The Balancing Act: One Writer’s Struggle to Get it Together

You may (wishful thinking) have read my blog post in which I pleaded to all my fellow bad girlz of the world for help on getting through a rough writing patch. And I mean ROUGH.  Well, I’ve been taking some time to reflect on all the wonderful advice I received, and try to get to the root of the problem.  I began a mission to figure out where it all went wrong.  Why wasn’t I able to write 5000 words again, at the kitchen table, the TV blaring, the kids fighting, and my husband giving me the stink eye?  Where was that Jenna P when I needed her to help me kick my writing drought’s ass?  I kept searching and searching for her, trying to figure out where she went.

But all I found was more stress.

Rather than successfully ignoring the mess around me, it compounded my stress.  I became frustrated with my family because they needed me to be a mom and a wife – imagine the nerve!  I became agitated with anything extra that popped up, because it was stealing away my writing time.  I resented anything that reminded me that I couldn’t do those things anymore.  And then by the time I actually had time to write – I was so worked up I couldn’t think straight.

And then…I’d do it all over again.

“They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result…”

From the song, Try It Again, by THE HIVES

 Well. Just call me The Hatter.

Suddenly it all made sense. Maybe it wasn’t getting better because I kept trying the same old things.  Maybe the same old things didn’t work anymore because I wasn’t the same old Jenna P.  Maybe I wasn’t the same old Jenna P anymore because my life required a different Jenna P.

Maybe it was time to rebalance my life.

So I literally sat down and began to make a list of all of my chores, commitments, interests, and wishes. And then I opened EXCEL and began trying to fit it all in to my calendar (Why, yes.  I AM an engineer!).  After this little exercise, two things became abundantly clear to me.

  1. It didn’t all fit.
  2. Thank God the old Jenna P was gone, because she wouldn’t have been able to deal.

Life is dynamic. Things change.  Our family’s needs change.  Our psyche’s change.  Our interests change. WE change.  What worked for us before might not work for us now.  No, the kitchen table wouldn’t do – I needed an office.  No, I couldn’t write in the evenings – I needed to write in the mornings.  No, I couldn’t write for hours straight anymore because I’m old and need to stretch my legs more.  No, I shouldn’t kill myself throughout the week to have Friday’s off to write, because I end up doing the laundry, housework, and errands I avoided in doing so.  No, I shouldn’t compare myself to my other writer friends, because our lives are completely different as are our commitments.

So, I created my own space (which we’ve moved a couple of times, but I think I finally found the most comfortable place). I started looking for a new job, which I think has been the biggest root of my issues.  Until that happens, I decided to work Fridays and go in at 9 instead through the week so I could write in the mornings (optimizing my time by eliminating rush hour traffic!).  I devoted my evenings to my family, so that I don’t feel like I’m constantly running behind.  I decided I simply couldn’t keep up the pace with many of my friends, so I needed to find a pace that worked for me.  And most importantly, I scheduled downtime, because nothing zaps creativity more than exhaustion.

Maybe I can’t write 5000 words a day anymore, but I’m okay with that. The important thing is that I’m writing, and if all I have time for is an hour a day – so be it.  Because that’s who I am RIGHT NOW.  When things change, I’ll figure out who I need to be THEN.

Jenna P.

9 Comments

Writing on a Deadline

Yep, you guessed it. While I’m writing this, I am on a deadline of epic proportions. The second book in my series from St. Martin’s Press, EXPOSED, is due in eleven days (not that I’m counting or anything). And, I’ll be honest, it’s freaking me out a little bit.

It’s a lot of pressure to be under, knowing you have to perform such a fickle task by a certain date, when all writers know sometimes the creative brain just doesn’t work that way.

I’ll also be honest and say this is when I perform the best.

I don’t know why it is that I can produce faster, better results when I have this looming date in front of me, but history doesn’t lie. I thrive on knowing I have to get something done by a certain time, that I have someone (or someones) waiting for me to finish my project. It holds me accountable in a way I’ve never been to replicate in any other way.

One thing, though, that I’ve found while being on deadline is that not everyone gets it. A lot of people assume a deadline for a book is just like any other deadline you might have in any number of jobs. And while, to some extent, that’s true, in most other jobs, you have a tangible duty to complete. Get this project done by this date. Redecorate this room by such and such. Sew this dress by next week. But in writing? How can you magically make ideas come when you need them? Sometimes they’re there and sometimes they’re not. And there’s not a whole lot you can do to coax something that doesn’t want to be there into showing itself.

But the one thing I’ve learned (through many drafts and many, many, many talks from other authors) is that you just need to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, in my instance) and write something. Anything. Because at the end of the day, you can fix anything, make anything shinier, sparklier, prettier. Anything except a blank page.

So that’s what I’m doing now, while I’m counting down the days hours until my deadline. I’m writing whatever comes to mind, knowing I can always fix it, if need be.

How do you function while on a deadline? Does it help or hinder you? And if you do better on a deadline, how do you push through those days where you just stare blankly at that blinking cursor?

10 Comments

What You Have To Do / What You Love To Do

Truth time: I hate about 50% of the work of being a writer.

I hate writing query letters. I hate writing blurbs. I hate writing synopses.

I…strongly dislike re-writes. I slightly less strongly dislike line edits.

I hate, hate, hate promotion.

headdesk.gifBut here’s the bigger truth: I love writing.

And if I don’t do the rest of it, I can’t do the part I love.

It seems simple, but getting that figured out in my head was a major turning point for me. For what feels like forever, I dragged my heels on all the “other stuff” a writer needs to do besides writing. I hemmed and hawed and procrastinated, and I agonized over every word of every synopsis and every blurb. Then, one day, I woke up and shook it off, and reminded myself that the writing is what I care about. And all the other stuff is just…other stuff. I do it to support my writing. I have to do it. I don’t have to love it.

I just have to do it.

When you think about it, only hating about 50% of what you do is probably pretty good, compared to most occupations. I hated way more than 50% of my life back when I was a teacher, and probably even more than that when I used to work in advertising. No one loves cleaning toilets, and an awful lot of the time, parenting boils down to a lot of difficult, difficult, messy work. Yet we suffer through it for the paycheck, or for our family, or for the chance at advancement. On a day to day basis, we get it done, probably because a principal or a boss or the threat of two-year-old meltdown is breathing down our neck.

In writing, unless you’re on a deadline, there’s no one breathing down your neck. It’s just you and that screen and that to-do list that makes you want to cry.

So just remember, days when the urge to weep and give up on that stupid, stupid, dear-God-why-must-I-write-you synopsis gets too strong.

You do this because you love to write. If you don’t do this, you can’t write. Not commercially. Not for a living. Not for other people to actually read.

Do what you have to do. Because it’s the only way you’ll be able to do what you love to.

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Think Like a Writer Series: New Year’s Resolutions

Don’t you just love that feeling you get at the end of a book when everything is wrapped up in a nice neat bow?  Our protagonists have fought the valiant fight.  They’ve figured out the right way to fix the problem.  They’ve finally heard our screams from somewhere in outer book space saying:  “Hey, dumb ass!  This is what you need to do!”

Wouldn’t it be great if we had someone screaming at us how to fix our problems?

Whether we want to recognize it our not, there was someone on the other end of a book with scissors and ribbon, carefully constructing a series of knots and bends and arcs that all came together in the perfect bow.

So why can’t we do this in our own lives?

This year I’m kicking off a new series on the blog entitled:  Think Like a Writer.  It’s an experiment, really, in applying what we do everyday as writers to our own everyday lives as people, to see if it really does wrap things up in a nice neat bow.  (Or at least help us make things more tidy.)  I hope some of my bad girlz will join in throughout the year with their own little experiments.

Experiment One:  New Year’s Resolutions.

You either love them or hate them.  I believe that in theory they serve the greater good, but for me they’ve never been very useful.  In fact, this year I made the same resolutions I made the past two years because apparently I’m on the five year plan.  Lose some weight.  Increase my social media presence.  Have more patience with my kids.  Write more.  Scrapbook more.  Faithful date nights with the hubby.  And of course, every pre-published writer’s personal favorite, find an agent or editor that believes in me and my writing.

So, how am I going to make this year different?  How will I finally earn a check next to a few of these resolutions and make room for new ones next year?  To answer these questions, I’m going back to the basics to find out where I’m going wrong.

Resolution (noun):  The act of finding an answer or solution to a conflict, problem, etc.

To a writer, this makes perfect sense.  The resolution is what we work to achieve throughout the length of our books.  It’s why we torture our characters, throwing harder and harder conflicts at them that aid in whittling down to that exact, perfect solution that they couldn’t quite see before the book began.  Okay – I got this.

Problem 1:  By definition, my resolutions aren’t resolutions at all.  They’re goals.

Goal (noun):  Something that you are trying to do or achieve

I want to write another book.  I want more twitter followers.  I want my kids to have scrapbooks created by their patient mother, and I want to fit into that pair of skinny jeans my husband bought me when we go to the movies or dinner.  These are all great goals to shoot for, but that’s what they are – goals.  Nowhere does it state how I’m going to achieve any of it, or what I’ll need to sacrifice to get it.

Well, no wonder I’ve been failing!  I’m an obsessive planner without a plan!

So, if I were one of my characters, what would I need to do before I could find my resolution?  Identify and defeat my antagonist!

Antagonist (noun):  One that contends with or opposes another

In my case, my antagonist isn’t so much a who as a what.  The stingy bastard standing in my way is the clock.

With more time, I could start a workout plan, spend hours coming up with funny tweets to draw folks my way.  I could plan a weekend scrapbooking session with some friends and not feel guilty because I’m not spending every spare minute writing.  I could afford more patience with my kids because really…what’s the hurry?

So, I just need to figure out a way to stop the clock and voila!  I get all my heart’s desires!

Problem 2:  No matter how strong or brilliant I am, I will never be able to stop time from marching on.

Seconds pass, minutes pass, hours pass.  It’s one of the few absolutes we have in life.  We can’t stop it.  It’s hopeless.  It’s like my own little, personal black moment!

Black Moment (noun):  The moment when all hope is lost, and there is no visible light at the end of the tunnel (hence, BLACK moment).

So, what do I do now?  What would my heroine do to rise from her black moment? After some fit throwing and head pounding, she’d finally realize she’d been going down the wrong path to begin with – and she’d find another way out.

If I can’t stop or slow down the clock, I need to find a way to get what I need in spite of it.  I need to create minutes, which is also equally impossible.  I need to free minutes.  I need to better manage my minutes.  I need to unclutter my minutes.

Resolution (noun):  The act of finding an answer or solution to a conflict, problem, etc.

And I’ve come full circle, haven’t I?  Imagine that.

I, Jenna P, do solemnly swear to resolve to actively work toward freeing, better managing, and uncluttering my minutes in 2014.   

That, I might just be able to do.  It will take hard work and some disappointment, but it might just be the best way to meet all those goals.  Only time will tell, ironically.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

Happy New Year!

Jenna P.

3 Comments

The Waiting Game

The past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of waiting.

Waiting in lines at Disney World.  Waiting at the mobile phone store, because the sales people take entirely way too long to activate phones.  Waiting in traffic, because a contractor decided to shut down lanes during rush hour on the only route I can take to work.  Waiting in the car rider line on the first day of school, because the new principal decided to change procedures without informing us parents.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

I try not to complain about things I can’t really change.  I mean, what’s the point?  Bitching about traffic doesn’t make it go away.  Instead, I spend a lot of time and effort making sure I avoid these situations so that my life runs smoothly.  I leave a half hour early for work to avoid the school rush, get to the car rider line forty-five minutes before dismissal so I can be first in line and get my kids to practice on time, and I know exactly what I want when I go into an electronics store to avoid all the sales mumbo jumbo.

But there are just some things, no matter how hard I try, that throw a wrench into my perfect little plans.

Like take, for instance, this whole writing thing.  What happened to my plan?  I should be published by now, or represented at the very least.  I should be finishing up my sixth book and planning for my seventh, talking to Lifetime about making my third movie, and writing cover blurbs for all my bad girlz, because they should all be published too.  Instead, I’m waiting.

Yeah.  Those perfect little plans.

But I don’t get discouraged.  I keep researching, because things are constantly changing.  I keep networking, because the more people you know the more chances you’ll have.  I keep writing, because when I do get the call I want to be ahead of the game.  I keep planning, even if my plans haven’t worked out thus far, because it gives me something to keep moving toward.

So if you’re just starting out, here’s my advice to you.  Set your goals, but know that they may have to change.  Do the best you can to stay on track, but expect the wrenches that will get thrown your way.  And always be ready to get the call tomorrow, but don’t get discouraged if it takes a while.

It will all be worth it one day, I promise.

How do you stay sane and keep yourself on track?

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The Word Count Trap

Indulge me in a quick little thought experiment. Imagine you’re dropped down in an unknown corner of a forest. You’re informed that you’re twenty miles from civilization if you head in the right direction.

Compass

Twenty miles. That’s a tangible goal, right? It’s measurable and achievable. It might be a hell of a long way, and it might take you a few days, and it might hurt, but you can do this. If you stay focused and determined, you can make it happen.

Please notice, however, that I say focused and determined, notsingle-minded’.

If you walk and walk without rest, you’re going to wear a hole in your foot and you’re going to be useless. If you walk and walk without water you’re going to collapse due to heat exhaustion. If you walk and walk without checking if you’re going in the right direction, you’re going to wander in circles and you will be lost, possibly forever.

Now imagine you’re not in the literal woods, but in the wilderness of your own insane, wonderful, brilliant decision to write a novel. If you’ve just pulled up a fresh document, you’re eighty thousand words from the end.

Eighty-thousand words. That’s a tangible goal, right? It’s measurable and achievable. It might be a hell of a lot of words, and it might take you a few months, and it might hurt, but you can do this. If you stay focused and determined, you can make it happen.

Lost in WordsBut the perils of being blind to everything but your goal, the perils of being focused on word count and word count alone are almost as bad as those of walking and walking and walking.

I call it the word count trap, and I fall into it all the time. I’m so obsessed with getting my thousand+ words written every day that I keep slogging forward. I don’t have time to take a nap or read a book or go on a trip; I have to write. I don’t have time to talk to my friends; I have to write. I don’t have time to re-examine my outline; I have to write.

But for me at least, writing without rest means writing crap. Writing without community means getting bogged down. Writing without a plan is like wandering in the woods without a compass.

It’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally come to recognize that getting rest makes me a better writer. Reading and sleeping keep my mind fresh. Attending writer group meetings and going on writer retreats give me the distance and space to come back at my manuscript with a renewed sense of energy and a better perspective about where the story is going. Revisiting my (admittedly spare) outline keeps me going in the right direction, and helps me adjust my course to stay on track.

I spent this past week traveling, and one of my destinations was a writer retreat sponsored by my old RWA chapter. Fellow Bad Girl Jenna Patrick already blogged about the things she’s learned and the friendships she’s formed by attending retreats, but for a moment, I want to focus on the value of just plain retreating. It’s not just about learning–it’s about retreating. It’s about stepping away and stepping back. I may not have gotten any words written this week—my word count may have suffered. But I came back re-energized and feeling like I know where I’m going, and like I’m on the right road both in this manuscript and in my life.

I got out of the word count trap.

And when I get back to writing tomorrow, I have absolutely no doubt that I’m going to writing better, faster, and with more purpose than I was before I left. It won’t take me long to catch up, and I’ll feel better for having taken the time away.

So when you get bogged down, remember that the answer isn’t always to just keep pressing forward. Sometimes, you’re much better served by stopping and taking care of yourself and getting some distance, then coming back to your words, rested and refreshed.

  • How do you recharge when you get bogged down?

9 Comments

At Least There’s A Parking Spot At The Gym?

Ah, late January. All the Christmas lights are (probably) down, winter’s chill is here for real, and the pretty white coat of snow is tinged with grey gunk from all the salt. The days are getting longer, but it still feels like it gets dark at four o’clock. Junk food has snuck its way back into the cupboard, and the parking lot at the gym is finally thinning out.

Quite a difference from the beginning of the month, no? When everything was still twinkling lights and new toys and optimism about resolutions we were all finally going to really make work this time. (No, really!)

My first blog post of the year was scheduled for January 3, and for a while, I debated making like Sydney and Jenna and writing something New Year’s themed. After seeing both of them hit it out of the park, though, I decided to wait, because for me, the problem with New Year’s resolutions isn’t making them but keeping them. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

So with the beginning of the year drawing to a close, let’s revisit those little promises we all made back a month ago, shall we?

While I have some good, solid, measurable goals surrounding word count, weight loss, etc, my resolutions this year were a bit more general—more attitudes than targets. They fell into two broad categories: things to say ‘yes’ to and things to say ‘no, thank you’ to.

Say ‘yes’ to more invitations (both social and professional), to little pockets of time that could be spent writing, to vegetables.

Say ‘no, thank you’ to time-wasting web sites, to toxic people, and to second helpings.

On the whole, I think I’m doing all right. Not great, certainly not perfect, but all right. But it’s never a bad time to double down, right?

So to keep those attitudes and ambitions top of mind, now, when it’s tempting to let them slip, I’m writing them on little post-it notes and putting them next to my laptop and inside the front cover of my journal and in my wallet. They’re just little reminders that New Year’s isn’t the only time to try to be my best. It’s something to work on every day of the year. It’s something to work on right now.

(Another thing to say ‘no, thank you,’ to? Procrastination.)

Anybody else care to check in? How are you doing making this year your best one yet?

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