Of course, this isn't based at all from my own experience.
Welcome to Inkygirl: Reading, Writing and Illustrating Children's Books (archive list here) which includes my Creating Picture Books series, Advice For Young Writers and Illustrators, Writer's and Illustrator's Guide To Twitter, interviews, my poetry for young readers, #BookADay, writing/publishing industry surveys, and 250, 500, 1000 Words/Day Writing Challenge. Also see my Inkygirl archives, and comics for writers (including Keiko and Will Write For Chocolate). Also check out my Print-Ready Archives for Teachers, Librarians, Booksellers and Young Readers.
I tweet about the craft and business of writing and illustrating at @inkyelbows. If you're interested in my art or other projects, please do visit DebbieOhi.com. Thanks for visiting! -- Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Of course, this isn't based at all from my own experience.
A bit about my writing background, time management thoughts, how I'm squeezing in extra writing time every morning, apps I've found essential in helping me get into the daily writing habit.
Those of you who have no trouble saying no can just skip the rest of this post.
Some of you, however, may be like me. I like making people happy and don't like disappointing them. I also dislike conflict. I like helping people. So when people ask me for things, I used to usually say yes....even when I knew I'd probably regret it later.
I'm gradually learning how to say no.
While it's true that saying yes to one "just have a quick favor to ask, would appreciate just a few minutes of your time" is no problem, saying yes to a LOT of these favors accumulates. And in my experience, "just a few minutes" inevitably turns into hours or sometimes days.
What's hardest: saying no to projects that DO sound like a lot of fun and/or worthy and that I really, really want to do. There are many of these. One of my challenges (and I suspect some of you feel similarly): I want to do EVERYTHING. There are so many good causes, so many people I want to help, so many projects I'd love to be a part of.
By saying no more often, however, I'm able to focus and enjoy the projects I say "yes" to more fully AND have more flexibility about when I do take on a new project.
Whether I'm working on my own writing (including the 250, 500 and 1000 Words/Day Challenge) or an illustration project, I find I'm able to better focus and be more productive if I can create a mental space in which I feel safe enough to do my best work.
Perhaps safe isn't the right word. I like Shaun Tan's "bubble of delusion" idea, which I first heard in his talk at an SCBWI Winter Conference a couple of years ago.
Sean's advice: Set up a safe space in which you feel positive about yourself and your work, and in which you know that you WILL do great work. Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people. Try to avoid negativity as much as possible. Sean says he steers clear of reading reviews of his work, for example.
Part of the way I do this is trying very hard to STAY OFFLINE when I'm doing creative work. Even dropping in on Twitter or FB for a few minutes can end up being an energy-sucking black hole, often making me question whether I'm doing enough (especially in terms of promotion, networking, working on my craft, etc.) or doing it -whatever "it" is- the Right Way.
What do YOU do to create your own Bubble Of Happy Delusion?
If you're doing NaNoWriMo, I encourage you to check out my friend Errol Elumir's daily NaNoToons!
Don't know about the rest of you, but I find my background noise preference depends heavily on what I'm working on. When I'm illustrating and am past the early sketch stages, I listen to audiobooks or have episodes of a previously-watched tv shows playing on my second monitor; the key for me is to have something interesting enough for variety but not TOO interesting to distract me from work.
For early creative stages and for writing, I used to prefer silence. These days, however, I like to have something going on in the background, especially if my work day has been especially long. Music with English lyrics is too distracting, so I listen to Italian progrock but even that can start driving me crazy after a while.
One of my favorite background sounds for intense creative work? Coffee shop noise: murmured conversations, movement, muted clatter of cups and cutlery. I also find having people around who are DOING things stimulating, and I'm less likely to start daydreaming or slack off. I used to go to real-life coffee shops to do my writing, but this has downsides. The expense, for one thing, plus sometimes the conversations taking place around me are a tad TOO interesting.
Looks as if I'm not the only one who finds coffee shops and coffee shop sounds motivating:
How The Hum Of A Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity - by Anahad O'Connor in The New York Times
Why Some Of Us Get More Done At Coffee Shops - by Kevin Purdy on Lifehacker
Coffitivity Plays Ambient Coffee Shop Noise To Boost Your Productivity - by Melanie Pinola on Lifehacker
For others who like coffee shop sounds in the background while they work, here's one solution:
Coffitivity: Just opening up the website page will start up the sounds of a coffee shop, and you can also get free apps for iOS, Droid and Mac desktop. I prefer the latter because I don't like having my browser open while working because it's too tempting to "just check one more website."
There are choices of other sounds as well, like a campus cafe and lunchtime lounge. Coffitivity has also invited the community to submit sounds to share, so I expect we'll get more choices soon.
How about the rest of you? Do you prefer silence? If not, what do you like to listen to while you work? I'd appreciate you taking a few minutes to answer my 1-2 multiple question poll: Do you prefer background noise while you work?
I'll post results in an upcoming Inkygirl post.
I mentioned earlier that I'd be sharing any tips and tools I've been using to help me focus. One of the biggest discoveries I made last year is a service called AwayFind.
I used to check email obsessively throughout the day. At first it was because I didn't want to miss anything important that came in, but then I realized that even if I wasn't expecting anything super-urgent, I'd STILL regularly (as in at least a few times an hour, sometimes more often) check my email, no matter what else I was doing.
It was only after I started timing myself, seeing how long I could work before I checked email, that I had to admit I had a real problem. The action of frequent email-checking was so automatic that it happened without conscious effort, making it impossible for me to sustain focus for more than a very short time. Gah.
The brilliance of Awayfind: You can set up a list of email addresses and get alerts when mail arrives from any of them. You can even customize these alerts, to avoid getting alerted for groupmails, etc. I added agent's address, for example, as well as other important work-related contacts.
There are different pricing plans, but you can try out the Personal and Pro for 30 days for free. I ended up opting for the Pro account.
End result? I no longer feel compelled to check email so often, giving me more distraction-free time to focus.
You can check out Awayfind yourself: http://www.awayfind.com
(and no, I'm not getting any affiliate fee for this recommendation)
Do you have another productivity tool to recommend? Feel free to post below!
I used to set ambitious New Year's goals every year ("I'm going to write 2000 words a day, every day!") but then get discouraged when I inevitably realized that, once again, I had set a goal or goals that were unrealistic. Or that had originally realistic but then got put on the back burner because of circumstances out of my control that had to take higher priority.
This year, I'm taking a different approach. While I am going to set some realistic work-related goals (to be posted on the MiG Writers blog) which I have tried hard to make realistic, I'm also going to work toward an overall goal:
Make more time to read and create books.
It's so easy to say, "I wish I had more time to xxxx" but the truth is that it's up to me to MAKE more time for what's important to me.
One of my tendencies is to want to do everything. I want to write (and illustrate!) more picture books. I want to work on my new MG and YA novel projects, because I know my writing and knowledge of the industry has improved over the years and I'm much confident about getting these newer book projects published. I have some fun nonfiction book ideas for grown-ups that I want to turn into book proposals so I can start pitching them. I'm thinking of self-publishing a compilation of my writing comics, but I also know that self-publishing requires a lot more admin/promo/marketing time. I want to keep all my webcomics updated but know I have way too many webcomics to keep updated. I want to improve my German language skills before Jeff and I attend Essen in late 2013. I want to improve my French language skills before Jeff and I visit French-speaking friends in late 2013. I want to write a new song for my music group to perform in our concert at FilKONtario. I want to reorg my home office. I want to learn more about non-digital art techniques like ink and watercolour, acrylics and multimedia textural art. I want to turn some of my cartoons and daily doodles into greeting cards. I want to help beef up content in my various collab group blogs. I want to improve my Photoshop skills and also go through Lynda.com tutorials on various creative software packages I've purchased in the last year. I want to write more songs.
I could go on and on and on. Clearly, I can't do all the above. I need to let go of many of these goals, else I know I'm going to end up not attempting any of them very well. So again, I've decided to focus on the following:
Make more time to read and create books.
Throughout this coming year, in addition to my regular Inkygirl.com posts, I'm going to be sharing my experience in trying to make more time to read and create books.
My first steps:
1. Managing my email more efficiently.
2. Being more aware of how much time I'm spending on social media.
I'll report back on both of these first steps in upcoming Inkygirl posts, so stay tuned. :-)
Helaine Becker is one of the most enthusiastic and productive writers I know. I met Helaine through Torkidlit: the Toronto Area Middle Grade and YA Author Group. She has written over 50 books, including the best-selling picture book, A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, the Looney Bay All-Stars series; popular non-fiction, including Magic Up Your Sleeve, Secret Agent Y.O.U. and The Quiz Book for Girls; and young adult novels including Trouble in the Hills and How to Survive Absolutely Anything.
Author and friend Marsha Skrypuch inspired me to write the book. We were having lunch one day and we were discussing how, when you write illustrated books for children, your royalties are divided with the illustrator. Fair enough. But Marsha said, “Gee, Helaine, if you wrote a YA novel, you might make more money since you won’t have an illustrator….”
As a hardworking writer, the idea of making more money appealed to me, so I thought I’d give it a try! I had a story idea niggling at the back of my brain, so I wrote it up. And Voila! How to Survive Absolutely Anything was born.
I somehow don’t think I’m going to wind up making that much more money on it than some of my picture books (A Porcupine in a Pine Tree hit #1 on the National bestseller list last year). Nevertheless, I enjoyed writing it, learned a lot about the craft of writing from doing it, and have enjoyed the whole process immensely.
Q: What was your research/writing process? How did the book get published?
This book did not require any major research, but most of my other books – I do a lot of nonfic – have a lot of research involved in them. For Trouble in the Hills, a YA adventure that I wrote after How to Survive….. (but it was published first), I had to research what a dead body that had been lying in an alpine cave for a year would look like. That was delightfully gruesome.
I also had to research drug growing in BC, human trafficking in BC, and mountain biking – to get all the info I needed I had to dig into newspaper stories, but also interview forensics pathology experts and cyclists in Grand Forks BC.
I’m working on another YA novel right now that involves fireworks. To research that project, I signed up for “Fireworks School” – a training course for pyrotechnicians. I’m now certified – as well as certifiable. ;)
How did Survive get published? After I wrote it, I stuffed it my drawer and tried my hand at a second, more ambitious novel. Both of these novels then went through the “kidcrit” process – the online critique group through Compuserve. Funnily enough, people seemed to like the second book better, so I tried to sell that one first, with no luck.
Now, looking back at it, I can see the flaws in it, so maybe one day that will get a rewrite. Anyhow, after a trip to Grand Forks BC for an author tour, I conceived the plot for Trouble in the Hills.
I wrote up a synopsis and some sample chapters and pitched it Christie Harkin at Fitzhenry and Whiteside. She liked it and offered to buy it. In conversation I told her I also had a “girls” manuscript, and she asked to see it.
Surprise surprise, she liked that too, and bought both of the books in a two-book deal. Trouble came out in Autumn 2011; How To Survive came out in June 2012. We’re talking about a sequel to Trouble in the Hills now – we’ll have to see what happens!
I didn’t have an agent to sell these books. In fact, although I ‘ve had an agent at several points in my career, I’ve always sold my own work directly. I don’t think anyone can really represent you better than you can yourself if you have sales skills.
I’ve published more than 50 books, trade and educational, in Canada and the US, without an agent. I think it’s a lot harder to do this, though, in the US trade market than it is in Canada or in the educational field. So I am now talking with my dream agent to rep my work in the US. We’ll see how that goes but my fingers are crossed that we’ll work something out and I can continue to grow my career with her.
Q: You said you learned a lot about the craft of writing while working on How To Survive Absolutely Anything. Could you give an example?
I had often heard people talking about how too many varied dialogue attributions (remarked, demanded, cried, interrupted, etc. instead of a simple “said”) and attributions modified by adverbs weaken your text. I didn’t really see it, until I was revising this book. Then I finally understood! Rather than saying, “Close the door,’ she scolded angrily,” it would be stronger writing to put “Shut that damn door already!”
Once I saw how adapting my dialogue in that way would get rid of lots of unnecessary words and make the whole text tighter, I went through the whole manuscript again, making changes. This was, unfortunately for my poor editor, the day before the book was supposed to go to press! But we both agree – it was worth it. The book is better now than it would have been.
Q. I've heard such great things about your school presentations! What one piece of advice would you give a new author who is just starting to give presentations?
Ask another writer if you can go and observe their presentations before you do your own. That way you can learn the ins and outs – how to check in with the school office, how to present your invoice, how to organize your space, etc.
Observe how the author handles interruptions, how they handle questions and answers, etc. It’s much easier when you’ve seen someone else do it first rather than going in completely cold. Also remember that kids are very forgiving audiences so don’t fret too much. It will turn out ok, and if it doesn’t people will still enjoy a good laugh!
Q: How much outlining do you do? What is your typical work process or work day?
Some of my books have been completely outlined. Others, like How to Survive, were more organic. I prefer to work with an outline. My typical work day starts late (after ten) and very slowly. I’m not a morning person, which is one reason why I’m a writer – I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had, mostly for being late! (If work started at noon….)
I like to warm up by checking and writing emails, then gradually work my way into the frame of mind to start writing REAL stuff. That being said, I’m extremely disciplined.
I write pretty much every day between 10-4, and if I’m on a deadline, between 10 and whatever. I work in my kitchen and can tune out everything around me as I work, much to the annoyance of my family. They want me stop typing and start making dinner. They, however, know where the fridge and stove are too, so I ignore them.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
I know most people tell you you should read a lot and get writing partners etc. But I think every single writer should take some basic business and sales courses. As a writer, you are really the sole proprietor of a business.
You need to know how to run your business and sell your product if you want to have a hope in hell of making a living and/or not getting stomped by unscrupulous parties.
I spend at least 50% of my work time preparing pitches and putting prospective projects “in the pipeline” – that’s a basic sales technique that guarantees you never wake up one morning with no contracts and no work and a mortgage you can’t pay.
I’m going to be teaching a session at Canscaip’s Fall writing conference, Packaging Your Imagination, on this topic. If you are in the Toronto area and have no idea what “qualifying the customer” or “profit centre” mean, this seminar is for you.
Q: What are you working on now? Anything else you'd like people to know?
What am I working on now? A zillion things, as usual. I have four – yes four! – books coming out this fall, 2 quiz books and two picture books, both of which have final edits on the go.
I’ve just finished my first draft of a new nonfic for Kids Can Press, coming out in 2013. I’m on the fourth draft of a YA horror, and working on the first draft of a funny middle grade novel.
Going back and forth between those two books as well as a verse picture book I’m polishing for Scholastic Canada really makes my head spin! I also put manuscripts away for a while to mature (this really means I didn’t have luck selling them the first time out!).
I pick those up when I have time and look at revising them. I’ve got three of those in the “on deck” circle right now.
I NEVER consider any project dead – they are all just resting. I’ve recently gotten an offer on a project that has been in my drawer since 1999. The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea (Kids Can Press, 2012) was based on a pitch I wrote up in 1998. And my quiz book series with Scholastic Canada grew out of another ancient proposal that I’m sure most people would have considered compost. I just looked it up – it had originally been dinged in 2002. But when the opportunity arose, I rewrote the pitch and gave it to Scholastic, and now, well, it’s four-books and more, I hope to come!
So my advice would be to everyone to hang on to all your old stuff and periodically go through it to see what still has potential. Often good projects are rejected because the timing or fit is bad.
When the times change, and personnel changes, you may find the perfect fit for that old raggedy project, restitched into a new suit.
Q: Where can people find you online?
Here are all my online deets:
follow me at www.twitter.com/helainebecker
Did you enjoy this interview? Check out other Inkygirl interviews.
Ok, I gave up on the idea of staying offline in the mornings.
Reason: Because of my Market Watch column for Writersmarket.com, I need to surf the Web for publishing industry info each morning. I tried to make notes of stuff that would be good tweet and blog post material later in the day, but found that the info always seemed stale later on, plus distracted me from whatever else I was working on.
For me, it makes sense to do the info sharing while I'm online doing the research; I'm just being more careful about how long I spend doing this. Right now, I'm keeping a detailed time log about how I spend my time each day. I don't plan to do this indefinitely, but it's certainly helping me see where and how I spend my time.
My new plan: To stay completely offline from noon until 3 pm. Thanks to those of you who suggested Freedom, a Mac productivity app that cuts you off from the Internet for scheduled amount of time. The only way to re-enable Internet access is to force-quit the app or reboot. How are the rest of you doing with your productivity goals?
To the left: my comic for Writer Unboxed this past weekend. You can see a bigger version by clicking on the comic and going to Writer Unboxed (a GREAT site for writers, by the way, if you haven't already visited).
I have found this pattern to be increasingly the norm for me up to now.
There are just so MANY great blogs to read, e-mail messages to catch up on, posts to write, collab blogs to participate in, comics to draw, writer & illustrator communities to check out, author and illustrators pals to help promote, etc.
While all of these activities are fun AND related to my various work projects and career goals, I realize that I still need to find the right balance between online networking/collab and working on my own projects. My "to do" list is always waaaaaaaaaay long, and my own creative work has been coming last.
Talking to author/poet/publisher Lawrence Schimel in NYC last week has really inspired me.
I WANT TO PUBLISH MORE BOOKS.
I have so many book ideas and also so many only partly-finished or partly-outlined projects: some writing (fiction & nonfiction) and some writing & illustrating (picture books, illustrated middle grade novels). I need to get more of these finished and OUT there.
Yes, I have a brilliant agent (Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown) but she needs finished projects or project proposals in hand before she can send them out.
I WANT TO IMPROVE MY CRAFT.
Related to publishing more books: I want to work on improving my craft in both writing and illustrating, and that takes time. I don't want to just publish books. I want to keep getting better at what I do, to always be pushing myself to learn more, try new things, and most of all -- to practice practice PRACTICE.
I WANT TO *READ* MORE BOOKS.
I started doing an office purge this past weekend, culling my print book collection and setting aside nearly 200 books to give to non-profits. Many were books that I had always meant to read but have to face the fact that I would never read (books that caught my eye at used bookstores, for example). Some were books I read and enjoyed but will likely never read again. I plan to replace my favourites with e-books, which take up less space, making it more feasible for me to buy new print books. :-)
But as I did my purge, I began to realize that I don't read nearly as many books as I did years ago. What gives? The answer: I'm spending much more time online than I did years ago.
What I'm Going To Do About It:
Ideally, I'd like to say I'm going to stay offline in the mornings until I get some creative work done. I have a daily publishing industry news column for Writersmarket.com to research and write each weekday morning, however, and that inevitably gets me on a slippery slope as I come across all kinds of interesting links and info and blogs as I comb the Web for publishing news.
I'm also aware that going cold turkey will likely end in me falling off the wagon, given that I've gotten used to being constantly online and connected for many years.
So here's my plan, posted here in public to help keep me accountable:
- When I work on my Writersmarket.com, I'm going to stay focused on the task and not let myself get tempted into wandering off the path. If I think of something important I need to do online that's not related to my column, I'll keep a list (I'm big on lists).
- I'll let myself check e-mail ONCE mid-morning (I usually get up around 6:30 or 7 a.m., so that would be about 9:30 or 10) to see if there's any URGENT e-mail. I will resist answering other e-mail or checking e-mail again until noon.
What about YOU?
At this point, some of you out there are rolling your eyes and thinking, "Geez, that doesn't sound like much." And while this may not be for you, it's a big step for me. I'm going to revisit my goals and progress and post here again in a month, to let you all know how I did. And if any of YOU want to post your own related goals in the comments section, feel free! Then you can update us all on your progress in a month when I do.
Some of you may also be thinking, "See? THIS is why I stay off all social media." Let me be clear: I am NOT giving up on social media! In my experience, the benefits of using social media far outweigh the negatives. I just need to be more disciplined in when and how I use it.
Any thoughts? Comments? Anyone else want to post their monthly Internet Anti-Distraction Goals?
So far, I've managed to easily meet my goal of 500 words a day. I'm even thinking of upgrading to 1000 words a day, but am going to wait a couple of weeks to make sure I'm not just experience a burst of "beginning of the year resolution" enthusiasm.
How are the rest of you doing?
One thing I'm doing to help minimize wasted time: UNSUBSCRIBING TO UNNECESSARY MAILING LISTS. I've mentioned this a while back, but since then I've let a number of services put me on their mailing lists without doing anything about it. Instead, I just delete the messages as they come in, without reading them.
From now on, if I find myself about to delete a mailing list message, I'll think very hard about whether I should be on the mailing list at all. And instead of being lazy and just hitting the delete key, I'm going to take the time to scroll to the bottom of the message and figure out how to unsubscribe myself.
A related tip: never EVER put people on your promotional mailing list without asking their permission first. It drives me crazy when I start getting promo e-mails from an author with an accompanying message like, "Hey, I thought you'd be interested in my work. If you want to be taken off the list, just let me know." It immediately makes me want to NOT buy the author's book. Ok, rant over.
Some writers are able to switch off their computers and stay off e-mail and the Web all day. Freelance writers who rely at least partly on client work for income, however, sometimes don't have this luxury. The Internet can be a wonderful resource for writers but it can also be a major timesuck.
To those who DO have to go online at least a few times a day: How do you manage your time online? Do you limit the amount of time you spend on social networking sites? What tricks and tips can you offer others? What -doesn't- work for you?