Friday, September 24, 2010

Making the Most What (Little) Time You've Got

My mind is on time management today, thanks to Debbie’s awesome post about how she manages to juggle her many projects. I have lots to juggle too, but it’s mostly my busy life -- two kids and their many activities, a part-time job, a dog , a husband and cable T.V. Possibly that’s why my writing progress often seems so slow [see my blog post here].

For me, writing gets about two hours a day, between getting ready for work and driving my kids places. Sometimes I get some “bonus time” on weekends or when everyone is watching a show I don’t like (but by the evening, I’m pretty tired so slumping down in front of the T.V. often wins out). I feel lucky to have my two hours, because I know that if I worked full-time, that would disappear. Even so, two hours can speed by pretty fast. Here’s how I make the most of it:

1. I actually use the two hours for writing. I do blog and read writing-related blogs, but I do it at another time (usually in the morning before the kids are up – I’m up at 6 a.m.; 5 a.m. if my husband is rowing). Same with critiques. I try to fit them in at other times, or maybe once a week. I try not to answer the phone. Otherwise, my whole writing time would disappear.

2. I try to write every day. This helps me stay connected to my story. Otherwise, I’d spend most of my writing time getting back into it.

3. I work on only one of my own writing projects at a time. I’d love to be developing some of the great ideas I have for my next novel, but I find that I’m mentally spread too thin if I think about more than one project at a time. I’d never finish anything. I also do a few educational writing projects, and sometimes I have to put my own writing aside to work on them.

4. I write everything down. I use a notebook to record thoughts about my writing. If I didn’t, they’d disappear. I’m also a list maker. I keep a list of what I need to do for my job, a list of what I need to do at home, a list of ideas for blog posts….Can’t you just picture my desk?

5. I read in every spare moment. There aren’t many of those, but if I’m eating lunch at home by myself, I read. If I have to wait for the kids to finish an activity, I bring a book. Before I go to sleep, more reading.

-- Andrea

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Time management, creative productivity and multitasking

I've had a growing number of people ask me how I manage all the projects that I do. I don't really consider myself that much more productive than others out there, really, especially those of you with young children. I'm always in awe of how you parents manage to juggle both parenthood AND family life.

For the focus of this post, however, I'm going to talk about time management outside of any parenting and family issues. Right now, I have about six book projects on the go, in various stages. One has a contract, two are being looked at by publishers (I'm in discussions with one publisher), one is with my agent and about to be sent out to a publisher, one is a graphic novel collab with Beckett Gladney, and one is an illustrated middle grade novel that I'm working on now.

Plus I have various blog projects and social networking that I try to do on a daily basis. How do I find time for all this? I don't believe that my time management tips will help everyone since each person's situation is different, but here are some of the things I do and don't do:

- We don't have cable tv. As in ZERO channels available on our television set. When my husband and I want to watch something, we buy (on iTunes) or borrow. This helps avoid the "let's channel-surf to see if there's anything on" time vampire situation, or having the television be distracting audio background wallpaper. Yes, I know I end up missing some good tv but for me, the sacrifice is worth it.

- I get up at around 6:30 a.m. every morning. I've always been a morning person, and I very rarely set my alarm -- I just get up at 6:30 a.m. (often earlier) because that's my natural wake-up time. I'd love to say that I write all morning without checking my e-mail or browsing the Web, but I'd be lying. I did try that for a while, but fell off the wagon after only a few days. Part of this is because I write a daily publishing industry news column for, so like to browse publishing industry news sites first thing in the morning so I get the most relevant news before writing my column. I usually work until around 4 or 5 pm each day, with several breaks throughout the day.

- I go for a walk every day. I used to run, but knee problems forced me to go for brisk walks instead. Not only is this a way for me to get some exercise, but I find that getting outside is a great way to clear my head. Of course, my brain often isn't able to block out work-related stuff...but that's okay. I find that I come up with my best writing ideas while on these walks (I use the Voice Record on my iPhone). This is also the time when knotty writing problems work themselves out. I am positive that this daily walk saves me many hours of wasted time sitting in front of my computer, frustrated and being unproductive. Sometimes being -away- being computer can make you a better writer.

- Get an accountability partner. I met Rilla Jaggia at the SCBWI Summer Conference in 2009, while we were both waiting in line to get our books autographed by an author. I don't remember which author, but I DO remember that conversation. We talked about our projects and motivation, and agreed to check in with each other once a month by e-mail to share our goals for the upcoming month as well as an honest update about whether we met the previous month's goals.

- Find a support network of writers. It's important, I think, that this group be small enough that you're able to keep up-to-date with what the others are doing and feel like the others CARE about your progress. It's one thing to be part of a group but another to feel like an important member. I feel very lucky to be part of the MiG Writers: not only do the six of us critique each other's work, but we also encourage each other on a regular basis. I meet once a month in person with the Toronto Middle Grade and YA Author Group. And I've just recently become involved with the SCBWI Illustrator Mentees Group, where we share info about our illustration projects.

- Get inspired. I know this sounds all touchy-feely but I've found this is such an important factor in my productivity level.  The more inspired I am about my work, the more productive I am. Deadlines are a source of inspiration, of course, but I'm talking about sources of inspiration for projects which don't yet have deadlines. Where I find inspiration, in addition to the sources mentioned above: reading books by authors I admire, writers' conferences like ones hosted by the SCBWI, reading inspirational posts about the craft of writing, reading about how hard other writers are working.

In the end, I believe that it's not so much about how much time you have, but how you use that time. I know some parents (my sister is one of them) who have become experts at taking a smaller amount of time than many full-time writers/illustrators and managing to squeeze SOOOOO much more out of that time. They don't have the luxury of being able to ease slowly into productive mode, or needing to have the ideal conditions or inspiration to work. In terms of time management tips, I consider myself an amateur in comparison to these super-productive creative parents who manage to be productive AND still make quality time with their spouses and children.

What about the rest of you? Any time management tips to share?

-- Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Getting schooled

My daughter just started a new school. While she’s excited about the change, it’s been challenging. New building. New teachers. New classes. New kids. It’s mentally and emotionally draining for her. But all change - even the good stuff - can be stressful. I try to remember that myself these days. 
For ten years, I wrote non-fiction. I loved doing it and enjoyed a fair amount of success. But two year ago, for a variety of reasons, I switched to fiction.  Some days, it feels all new to me. New format. New audiences. New rules. New writing process. I have to constantly remind myself to cut myself some slack. There’s going to be learning curve and it’s just going to take time to find my confidence and develop my skill. 
But stepping out of our comfort zone is always a good thing. It stretches us creatively. And as the saying goes, “You can’t cross the sea by merely staring at the water.” 
What new things are you trying these days? 


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Bliss

Last weekend I went to the beach with my family and of course I took a stack of books to read. One of the books was Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. If you are a Hunger Game fan then you know instantly that I had a great beach read. Collins knows how to weave a story. I can close my eyes right now and remember lounging in my beach chair, listening to the waves, reading a fantastic story. Yes, that is what I call Book Bliss.

So this got me thinking. What pulled me so much into this book? What drew me to the pages and sucked me into Katniss’ world?

Well, you can’t deny Collins incredible world building. I had to know how this world ticked and what were the secrets of District 13 and the Capital. Then there’s the action, adventure, romance, intrigue. Yep, it’s all there.

But the biggest draw for me was the not knowing. The desire to find out if Katniss and her friends would survive.

So what characteristics in a book give you Book Bliss?

~ Christina

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Scrutiny of the Teenaged Critic

My writing has grown up with my children. When they were little, they loved my picture books, which often featured them as main characters. It was fun to see them so excited about my writing. Then came the early readers, centred around their interests. They weren’t as concerned about being the stars of the stories, but they did begin to voice their opinions, telling me what they liked and didn’t like. Now that I’m writing middle grade novels, they’ve become teenagers, and my most valuable –and harshest—critics. They tell me:

- when they don’t connect with a character

- when the dialogue doesn’t work or isn’t what a kid would say

- when I need to fix a huge plot hole that’s implausible to them

- when they don’t understand the logic or what is happening in the story

These kinds of comments are all a great help. In fact, my latest manuscript is filled with pencilled in comments. Giant question marks. Underlining with notes that say “This sentence is awkward” or “This character’s a girl?” or “Not presented in the right POV.” They’ve become so picky, I’m beginning to think I liked it better when they were five and just said they liked it. Where did they learn all this stuff? Possibly I’ve raised two future editors. Of course, it’s not quite as helpful when they tell me:

- they don’t like a character’s name because it reminds them of someone they don’t like

- in a slightly sarcastic tone, “Since when?” or “I don’t think so.”

- "This whole story would never happen this way, you know" (trying to be kind)

- to hurry up and finish writing because they want to use the computer

As teenagers, they are begging me to write YA. I shudder to think what they’d say if I did. But I think I’ve found my niche. I am so over writing to please them, I’m sticking with middle grade. (Though I’m hoping that they will at least finish reading the book without throwing it down and saying “When are you going to write something normal?”)

-- Andrea

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Birthdays and bike helmets

Today is my son’s 16th birthday. The homemade chocolate cake he requested is baking in the oven at this moment. As his mom, I can’t help but think of the day Sam was born. How another boy was unexpected but also wonderful news. And how I stared at his perfect, little face and fell in love for the third time. 
But Sam’s birthday also reminds me of something else. Seven years ago - and just a few days after Sam got a cool, full face bike helmet for his birthday - I rode down to the school to meet him. Ten minutes later, I hit the back of Sam’s bike and went over my handle bars. 
It took me six months to fully recover from the head injury. I wrote the essay below near the end of my recovery. I thought I’d share it today because it has to do with writing. But I hope you think of me the next time you decide it’s no big deal to let your child - or yourself - ride without a helmet. Not wearing a helmet was a few second decision that cost me many months and traumatized my family, especially Sam. There are so many things that we can't control in life. But what we put on our heads when we put pedals under our feet is something we *can* control. 

Keeping My Head Above Water

My head is bleeding and there’s a crowd. This much I know, though I don’t open my eyes. I also know my nine-year-old son is calmly telling someone my age. What I can’t figure out is why I’m lying, face down, in the street.  

At the hospital, I hear the paramedics tell the trauma team, “Thirty-six years old, thrown off a bike, no helmet.” As a nurse cuts off my clothes, I think how funny it will be to write about being caught wearing underwear with candy canes printed on them in September. As I wait for x-rays, I even start the essay in my head: My mother always told me to wear a clean pair of underwear in case of emergency; she never said anything about making sure they were seasonal, too! 

As it turns out, I don’t write about the underwear. In fact, I don’t write about much for quite some time. The concussion has some lingering affects. I struggle with fatigue, anxiety, a lack of concentration, and indecision. I spend most of my days feeling one step away from falling apart.               

“Poor timing.” That’s what my doctor says when the negotiations are done it’s time to either sign the book contract I’ve been offered or walk away. I can’t pick out a lousy birthday card for my mother, let alone make such an important decision. I call those I trust to keep me safe and we talk. Everyone tells me my health is more important than finishing the parenting guide I agreed to do months before the accident. It’s due at the end of the year.   

Walk away from the deal or push myself to complete the project - either decision will cost me dearly. 

I decide to walk away. I spend a weekend writing the letter to the publishing company. The thing is, I can’t bring myself to send it on Monday morning. It’s as if I’m in the water and everyone I love is trying to pull me onto the lifeboat. Only I’m thinking maybe I can keep treading just a little longer 

In the end, it is my dad who articulates what I already know in my heart, if not in my fuzzy head. I will second guess whatever decision I make (it is my nature), but letting go when I’m so close and after I’ve worked so hard, would surely cause me to sink deeper. For me, regret weighs more than failure.

So I email the publishers, tell them to send the contract and then I sit down to finish the book. Working again is not easy, but I keep my head above water. Writing is my lifeline. The one I throw myself. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fine Tuning Your One-Sentence Pitch

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of blog contests that involve crafting a one-sentence pitch for your novel. We even had one here! Writing one of these is a challenging process, and you can find lots of how-to’s in the online writing community. But until yesterday, I’d never entered one of these contests.

After the mad scramble to get my entry in, I read through the other pitches. What I noticed:

1. If a one-line summary is too general, it doesn’t capture my interest. It needs some specific details about the conflict or story characters. But too much detail makes it hard to read. I try to avoid long explanatory phrases or multi-hyphenated descriptions.

2. It gives you an idea of the kinds of stories other people are writing. If you were writing in a popular genre, e.g. a YA paranormal, your own summary would really have to sizzle. Some summaries stand out just because they reflect a different type of story.

3. My own one-sentence summary could use some fine tuning. In the company of others, it was easier to see where it didn’t read quite right, or where it needed a bit of clarification or a little spark. This is the hardest part – trying to give it a little bit of sparkle when it’s so short!

-- Andrea

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Taking Writing Seriously

After years of writing, studying the craft and talking to other writers, I've learned to quickly tell the difference between hobby writers and serious writers.

Hobby writers spend far more time talking about writing than they do actually WRITING. They love talking about their latest book idea to anyone who will listen. They never have enough time to write, but they always have time to watch the latest episode of American Idol or Glee.

If you're serious about writing then you'll make the time to write, even if it's only a few minutes here and there.

Speaking of which, I'd better get back to writing...

- Debbie

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mystery Agent contest

We had so many great entries when we ran our one sentence pitch contest, I thought some of you would like to hear about another opportunity. The folks over at Operation Awesome (isn't that a fun name for a blog?) are holding this contest till the first 50 entries or till the end of Sept., whichever comes first.

Check it out and good luck!