Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Productivity for Writers and Other People

By Meredith Allard

It’s interesting to me to see how conversations change over time. Not so long ago everyone was praising multi-tasking as the best thing ever. Hey, I can write the world’s greatest novel while reading blogs while checking every new email the moment it pops into my inbox while keeping track of every ping on Facebook and Twitter while walking the dog while doing my taxes while binge watching Netflix while juggling watermelons while yodeling to the tune of “O Solo Mio.” At the end of the day I’d wonder why I hadn’t written more. Had I really lost an entire day watching cat videos on YouTube? Then I realized that I didn’t want to spend more time working. I wanted to get more done.

Around this time, I started seeing articles about how multi-tasking may not be all it was cracked up to be. We weren’t putting all our attention and talent into any one task; as a result, we weren’t working to the best of our abilities because our attention was too scattered. Enter the discussion about productivity.

I think the reason there are so many articles about productivity is because so many of us are struggling with the same issue—how do we work more efficiently so that we’re getting more and better work done in less time? Here are a few tricks I’ve learned lately that have helped me stay focused while I’m working. I wrote this post from the point of view of a writer hoping to steal back some of her precious time to get more writing done, but I hope anyone who is having some concerns about their productivity will find these tips useful.

  1. I changed my homepage for the Internet.

Since I’ve had the Internet in the mid 1990s I’ve used AOL as my homepage. My email address is through AOL, so by using AOL as my homepage I could check my email as soon as I logged online. But you know how it goes…there are the news links, the entertainment links, the books links, along with any other links that might catch my eye. Once AOL and The Huffington Post joined hands, I was done for. I’d spend an hour reading blog posts and getting no work done in the process. Was it fun? For sure, though there were definitely times when I was wondering why I was reading about celebrities I didn’t even care about. I had just wasted an hour I could have spent getting my work done.

About three months ago I changed my Internet homepage to my own website. That might sound a little self-serving, but it helps me in two ways. First, I can do a quick glance at my site to see if there are comments I need to respond to, which I can often do in under five minutes. Second, there are no news feeds to distract me so I’m able to get right to whatever it is I need on the Internet. Yes, I have to click on one or two more links to get to my email, but it’s worth it to me to skip over the distractions.

  1. I check my email twice a day.

I check my email in the morning to see if there’s anything imperative that needs seeing to, and then I check my email at the end of my work day to see if there’s something that came in since the morning. That’s it.

  1. I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and iPad and stopped all social media notifications.

Now the only way I can access Facebook and Twitter is to log in on my computer. This extra step helps to scratch the itch that used to lead me to check my social media pages every five minutes to see if someone posted a new cute cat photo. I check Facebook and Twitter twice a day, quick scans to see what others are up to and if there’s anything I need to respond to, which, again, I can usually do in less than five minutes.

I also removed all social media notifications. I no longer get instant pings whenever I get a new email or message on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. When I was getting the notifications everything else stopped until I discovered who sent the message and what it said. One day, in a burst of wisdom, I realized that most of the pings were about things of extreme unimportance. I decided that I wanted to focus my attention on things that are important so I turned off the notifications, and I don’t even miss them.

  1. I schedule my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn posts.

I use Hootsuite to schedule my posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It takes about an hour to schedule a week’s worth of posts, and then I’m done and don’t have to search every day for what to post on social media.

  1. I started using Google calendar to schedule my daily tasks.

For years I used paper and pencil notebooks and planners, but in my new wish to downsize my belongings (I love Marie Kondo’s books about decluttering) I’ve become totally electronic. Google calendar is heaven sent. It’s free, and all you need is a gmail account, which is also free. You can share your calendar with others, or you can keep it private. So now I know each day what I need to accomplish.

For example, today I had several tasks to tend to: complete my word count for the first draft of Down Salem Way, write this blog post, and find five sites to advertise Her Dear & Loving Husband, which is once again free. When those tasks are finished, I’m done with my work for the day, which is always a good feeling. Knowing what I have to do helps me stay focused. When I wasn’t keeping track of my daily tasks I just floated about looking at stupid stuff on the Internet because I was never sure what to do next so I’d go back to those cute cat videos on YouTube.

On a side note, I also find that it helps to know exactly what I’m looking for when I go onto the Internet. Right now, I’m back to researching the Salem Witch Trials for Down Salem Way, and I’m also looking for places to advertise When It Rained at Hembry Castle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I have those tasks on my Google calendar too so I know what I’m searching for. It stops me from going back to (you guessed it–the cute cat videos).

  1. I turned off the TV.

The TV is not completely gone because I do love my Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. For years, even if I wasn’t watching a show I had the TV on acting as background noise. Now the TV is off, as in off off, with a blank screen and everything. I started listening to music because music always helps to get my creative juice flowing. I’ve also started listening to podcasts because I realized I’d rather listen to some intelligent conversation than some TV show I don’t care about, and I can listen while I work. Rather than distracting me, the podcasts tap into my inquisitiveness about the world and they help me think, which is always a good thing.

My podcast tastes are pretty eclectic, like everything else about me. I love podcasts about writing and the publishing industry like Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn. As I’m learning more about productivity, I’m also learning more about how to be centered and healthy in this crazy world of ours so I listen to Shawn Stevenson’s The Model Health Show and Pedram Shojai’s The Urban Monk. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes is also pretty cool, and Shambhala features talks by famous meditation teachers in their podcast Meditation in the City. I recently discovered the History Chicks’ podcast, a great listen for a history buff like me.

  1. I had to learn to stop checking everything everywhere.

We’ve all heard of the social ill the Fear of Missing Out (affectionately—or not depending on your point of view—known as FOMO). I was right there with everyone else, checking my social media every five minutes, worrying that what was going on over there was more important than what was going on over here. Also, because I’m a writer I was constantly checking my stats on my website and my book sales. Why did I sell more books on Wednesday than Monday? How come this book’s sales have slipped? Why did this post get more views than that post? I’d check my Amazon sales page five or six times a day, as if things were going to be that different between 3 and 5 pm. And then when things were the same I felt disappointed that some magical sales boost hadn’t happened.

Not only is this kind of constant worry exhausting, it isn’t productive. When I was worried about book sales or website stats I should have been writing. There was some time there when I was a writer who wasn’t writing—or at least I wasn’t writing as much as I could have been. I was so concerned about all these other aspects, some of which were beyond my control, and you know what? They don’t matter. Sales don’t matter. Website hits don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how I feel about what I’m doing. I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me (or even worse, my own perception of other people’s perceptions of me) to affect how I felt about myself, and that, my friends, is never a good thing.

As a result, I put myself on my “no checking stats” rule that I live by to this day. I no longer check my Amazon, BN, or Kobo sales pages. I no longer check to see how many page views my latest blog post has. My one exception is that when I’m running a promotion I may check my book sales pages to see if the promotion is worth its weight in beans, but otherwise my Amazon page is a no-go. Because you know what? My books are going to sell as many copies that day as they’re going to sell whether I’m compulsively checking or not. Why make myself crazy and waste time in the process? Yes, it does takes some self-restraint to go from checking 10 times a day to zero times a day, but it is possible. If you’re not able to go cold turkey like I did, maybe try checking just once a day and see how that goes.

  1. I started paying more attention to my health.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wasn’t eating well. I was eating and drinking way too much sugar, and my exercise habits had all but disappeared. As I’m working toward becoming a more productive writer, I’m also learning more about health and wellness (mostly from the afore mentioned Model Health Show podcast from Shawn Stevenson). I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now I’ll say that whoever you are, no matter what your profession, you have to get up and move. You have to put healthy food into your body. You have to drink more water. The better you feel, the more productive you’re able to be because you’re healthier. It’s hard to be productive when you feel lousy. Do what you can to help yourself feel better.

I am definitely getting more work done in less time. I’m no longer wasting time—or, more accurately, I’m wasting far less time. I still spend more time on Pinterest than I need to, but hey, no one’s perfect. For the first time, I’m writing two books at a time, which is something I’ve never been able to do before. By whittling away at time wasters and finding ways to streamline my work time, I’ve been able to get more done. From now on, instead of multi-tasking, I’ll be focusing on productivity.

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Thanks for sharing!
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Researching Historical Fiction: The Victorian Era

Victorian England

By Meredith Allard

I have an odd habit of choosing to write historical fiction set in eras I know little to nothing about. I came up with story ideas about the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City and Washington, D.C. during the woman’s suffrage movement, and the American Civil War, and for those stories I had to learn about the history to write the novel. I don’t mind when it happens that way, though. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I enjoy learning about the past. I often get ideas for the plot from my research, so the research helps to make my novel even richer than it might have been without the historical background.

Writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle was different. I was already familiar with the era because of my love for Dickens. This time, it was more about reminding myself what I already knew (it had been 20 years since grad school by then) and figuring out how to use that knowledge in this story I had been kicking around for two decades. I realized early in the process that now I wanted to include aspects of my favorite TV show—Downton Abbey. The aspiring young writer Edward Ellis was still the focal point of the story, but now I wanted to include upstairs/downstairs elements as well.

To begin my research, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for Hembry—Our Mutual Friend. From there, I went back to a few favorite books about the Victorian Era—What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ Londonand Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian Englandby Judith Flanders. I had read both of those books previously but reread them for a refresher course. While reading about the Victorian Era, I discovered a new favorite historian, Ruth Goodman, who impressed me with the fact that she doesn’t just talk about Victorian clothing, she makes it and wears it. She’s tried out many elements of living in the Victorian era, which gives her work that much more authority. Her book, How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life, is a must read for anyone interested in life during the Victorian period. I also read The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes. Edward Ellis is loosely based on a young Charles Dickens, but I didn’t need to read anything specifically for that since I’ve read pretty much every biography about Dickens. It was nice to be able to use information I had in my head for a change.

Victorian England 2

After my refresher course on Victorian England, I realized that I needed to learn more about what the upstairs/downstairs world looked like in the 1870s. To my surprise, it wasn’t so different from the way it’s portrayed in Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912 during the Edwardian era. While I picked up a lot about manor house living from watching Downton, as many fans of the show have, I felt I needed more specifics so I read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. I gleaned some great information from that book, and it provided good background for me so I could see how the country house servant evolved over the years. The upstairs/downstairs world isn’t part of our culture in America the way it is in England, and I wonder if that accounts for Americans’ fascination with Downton Abbey—it’s a glimpse into a lifestyle we weren’t familiar with.

The way I research historical fiction has changed a lot over the years. I used to do months of research before I ever started writing. Now I do a few weeks worth of preliminary research to get a feel for the era, and then I start writing. As I write, I get a sense of what information I need so I know exactly what to look for. As I was writing, I realized that if Edward was a political journalist then he would know politics. I needed to figure out the political climate of the time, but it wasn’t too hard since I knew what I was looking for—events in British politics in 1870. I remember learning about Gladstone and Disraeli in a class I took years ago, and it was nice being able to put that knowledge to use as well.

Through the writing process I realized that I needed information about Victorian etiquette. There were such specific rules for every aspect of life, and since part of Daphne’s struggle is to learn to live in this upstairs/downstairs world, she had to learn those rules. I found The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill, which was written for Americans during the Victorian era, but after a little digging I discovered that the rules were the same in Britain so I used that book as my primary reference. The etiquette seems so antiquated now. I had a lot of fun writing those scenes because Daphne is rather amused by her grandmother’s nitpicking about how her manners aren’t refined enough for English society.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit England twice prior to writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Most of the London locations in the story were chosen because they were places I’ve visited myself so I had seen what I was describing. I stood on the Victoria Embankment near the Houses of Parliament watching the Thames roll as Edward is wont to do. I’ve taken a couple of Edward’s walks through the city. Many of the buildings are different (I’m pretty sure the The Gherkin wasn’t around in 1870), yet some of the buildings are the same, which is amazing to me. Here in Las Vegas buildings are imploded if they’re more than 20 years old.

In many ways, researching When It Rained at Hembry Castle was the easiest work I’ve done so far for a historical novel since I was already familiar with the time. It’s always magical to me when I start to see how I can take this knowledge of history and weave it into the story I have in mind. What is even more amazing is when the history leads the story in directions I had never considered before. That, for me, is the joy of writing historical fiction.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Her newest historical novel is When It Rained at Hembry Castle, a Downton Abbey inspired story set in Victorian England.

Thanks for sharing!
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What I Learned About Writing From Coloring Books

By Meredith Allard

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.

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Thanks for sharing!
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