31 October 2012

NaNoWriMo: here we go!

It's the last day of preparation for NaNoWriMo, ladies and gentlemen. It's the last day to get organized, scribble notes, create characters, and come up with outlines before the crazy, creative adventure begins tomorrow morning (at midnight tonight, really)!

In addition to prepping your story, remember that today is also the last day to prep your life for NaNoWriMo. Make sure your toolkit is ready with the drinks, snacks, music, and supplies you need. Make sure your house is ready to be basically abandoned for a month.

If you still haven't committed to the adventure, I urge you to consider it. There's still time! You don't need anything other than the desire to write a book in a month. And less than 2,000 words a day will get you there.

I'll be right there along with you this month, writing the coffee house book. (Yes, I am aware that it technically breaks the rules to qualify as a NaNo novel, but I'm writing it nonetheless.) I've done NaNo in the past, and I've both hit and missed the 50,000-word count goal. This year, my focus is on finishing this draft of the coffee house book, regardless of the total word count. That is, after all, the spirit of National Novel Writing Month.

Open up a word document (or a new notebook and pick up your pen), brew a cup of really strong coffee, and watch the clock.

Good luck and happy scribbling!

30 October 2012

Conference calls when you work from home

Working an office job means, inevitably, meetings. However, since I work partially remotely, meeting in person in the office is not always an option. Conference calls and phone meetings have become the answer to that.

I like doing conference calls because it gives me more flexibility in scheduling meetings. I don't have to limit them to the two days each week I'm in the office. And since I have a home office completely separate from the rest of the house, I don't worry about not being able to hear the other person or getting distracted. Really, there have been a few instances in which meetings in the office have presented more challenges than phone meetings! Of course, the fact that I can refill my coffee and doodle without anyone seeing it is just a bonus.

That's not to say that conference calls from home are easy. They require just as much preparation and attention as any meeting. Sometimes more so since listening to someone on the phone is not the same as sitting across from them at a conference table.

The key with conference calls from home is to treat them the same in your schedule as a face-to-face meeting. Take notes, don't try to multi-task on another project, and do what you need to in order to get everything from the meeting that you need to move forward with the project.

Do you have conference calls or phone meetings? Do you find them more or less effective than face-to-face meetings?

29 October 2012

Shifting gears for November

Puck and Tink will be back this weekend. (Squee with me, won't you?) It's been a long month, and I'll be so, so glad when they're here. In the meantime, I have some things to finish up to get ready.

My life shifts a bit when the kids are here. (That's how it should be.) I'm more protective of my evenings and weekends, and even my lunch breaks on the days I work from home. The time I have with the kids is my first priority except in a few rare instances and under very specific circumstances.

Because of that needed shift, I'm finishing up some projects for work and throughout November I'll be planning my task lists carefully. I would hate to have to work over a weekend instead of taking the kids on an adventure, so I'll do what I can to be done working when I log off my computer at the end of the day. (After all, we have some big adventures planned for November!) But as long as I stay organized and keep on top of my task lists, November will be a good month.

In addition to shifting gears to be ready for the munchkins to be home, November is when I start getting ready for the end of the year. December is always a busy month, so I want to start getting things organized early so I'm not scrambling in the last two weeks of the year to file and organize. Again: organization.

There's less than a week left in October, and then it'll be a footrace to the end of the year. Are you ready for November? For the holiday season? For 2013? What are you doing to prepare?

28 October 2012

Renew Your Spirit Sunday with quiet days

My calendar has been busy this month, both for work and my personal life. November is already looking just as busy. So today I'm taking advantage of being able to have a quiet day at home.

I like being busy, especially when Puck and Tink are visiting Monty. It helps that time pass more quickly, and I like feeling productive. That being said, everyone needs downtime. That's the point of having "Renew Your Spirit Sunday," after all. It gives you the chance to prepare your mind for the coming week.

I am singing in the choir at morning service, but when I get home, I may just put my pajamas back on and snuggle under an afghan to watch movies and drink coffee (or tea) all day. (Netflix is a wonderful thing for movie days!)

Next Sunday, Puck and Tink will be back, and while we may have a quiet day at home, it will be of a very different sort. But for today, afghans and hot drinks should be perfect.

27 October 2012

My weekends

Weekends have taken on a new meaning in the past few months. Since starting my shiny, new job at the beginning of August, I've actually had time in the evenings and on the weekends to be not working, and spend quality time with Puck and Tink, or with my family and friends. It's been wonderful. I didn't remember what I was missing!

Puck and Tink have been spending this month with their father, so I've been trying to use my weekends--since I have them now!--to get things done around the house. I made a list at the beginning of the month, and I've been slowly crossing things off as the month has progressed.

Now that I've been with the company for a few months, I'm sort of in a routine with my work schedule. I (usually) go into the office the same two days each week, work from home the same three days each week, and have the weekends to spend with the kids. And since my brain is finally fully adapted to this routine, I think weekends with the kids are going to be much more fun! (We already have a couple of trips planned!) I won't feel guilty about packing the kids in the car for an impromptu trip to Granny's house, or spending a lazy day at home with the kids' favorite snacks and a movie. Because I know that when I log off my computer at the end of the day on Friday, I don't have to look at it again until Monday morning.

As I've said before, I really did love freelancing. It was hard, but it was rewarding. However, knowing now that I have my two days a week to completely shut off the "office" side of myself and instead focus on the spontaneous excitement that comes from parenting two toddlers is a different and deeper kind of rewarding.

I cherish my weekends, and can't wait for what our family has planned throughout November!

24 October 2012

NaNoWriMo prep: your writing schedule

NaNoWriMo begins in about a week, and it’s time to start thinking about exactly how you will make time to write these 50,000 words that need to be written.

The month is about proving to yourself that you can write a novel. And that’s wonderful! The coffee house book idea began as a poorly developed and badly written NaNo novel. But with all the time spent gearing up, planning, organizing, and outlining in October, we may forget that, come November 1st, you have to actually sit down and write the thing! For many of you—particularly if you have adventures outside of your home known as a “traditional job”—creating a writing schedule can help keep things organized and make sure you have enough time to write your novel while not being at risk for getting fired or having small ones rise up in protest due to lack of sustenance.

This is the first year since 2007 that I’m participating in NaNo and have a traditional job. So this year is going to be a bit of an adjustment for me. That’s why I’m making a schedule. Not only do I have the responsibilities of taking care of Puck and Tink and helping my sister host Thanksgiving dinner, but I have to do it while the hours of 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. are blocked off.

This year I’m faced with the challenge of making time to write 1,667+ words every day in the month of November without having the flexibility to write for NaNo first and write for work afterward.

Remember that life comes first. Always. It’s important for writers to set aside time to write. It’s important for the family and friends of writers to understand that writing time is needed. But it’s more important for you to be a present and important part of your family. Don’t neglect your life to write this story. If something comes up, it comes up. Address it, then get back to writing when you can. Life happens. And without it, we wouldn’t have anything to draw from for our stories. So if life needs to get in the way during NaNoWriMo, so be it. The story will be there when you get back.

Think about when you’re most productive. Since you’re likely going to have to sacrifice sleep, decide where you want that sacrifice to occur. Are you the type that gets up before everyone else in your house to have a quiet cup of coffee? Get up an hour earlier (even a half-hour would be great) and use that time to write. Conversely, if you’re the type that stays up long past everyone else, write once the family has gone to bed. Or both! Find a time of the day that works for you and stick with it. You know your writing style best.

Think about how long it will take you to write 50,000 words. How fast do you write? How well does your story lend itself to quick writing? If you’re able to churn out 1,000 words in half an hour, you’ll only need about an hour and a half a day of writing time to hit the goal. But if you’re a slower writer, you’ll need to set aside more time each day. Don’t short-change yourself out of writing time in your schedule.

 Be flexible. Remember: this is meant to be fun, and to figure out what works best for you. It’s great to set aside two hours in the morning to write every day, but if you’re finding that you struggle to get going, consider trying to write at a different time of day to get your NaNo novel done. Don’t lock yourself into anything. (No one will know, anyway!)

There’s no need to write out a formal writing schedule (unless you feel the need, I suppose), but know when you’re going to write. And when you decide be sure to tell your family. If they know you have specific times set aside to write (and to not write), they’ll know to leave you alone during those times. (Having a silly “writing hat” works well to let little ones know you’re busy!)

The time to write exists. You just have to carve it out within your schedule and just get yourself in the chair to write when it’s time.

Happy scribbling!

17 October 2012

NaNoWriMo prep: creating the characters

Do you know who the characters in your NaNo novel are going to be yet? Do you know who they are? What they look like? Their careers? Their hobbies? Do you know how they interact with other characters?

Knowing who is going to be in your story can be an important part of your preparation for NaNoWriMo. After all, it's the characters who populate the world you create. And the more you know about them, the more real they will seem to the reader.

I'm a big fan of using Robert Atkinson's life story interview from A Gift of Stories, which I've mentioned before. This interview template has been incredibly valuable to me as I'm doing background work for the collection, but may be a bit too in-depth for some people to use in preparation for NaNoWriMo.

Whether you use an in-depth biography or just a few bullet points about who the character is and his or her physical appearance, knowing something about the characters before you start writing will give you a starting place for the characters' personalities, as well as help you keep things consistent as you write and develop your story.

Do you have a method for creating your characters? If so, what is it? If not, why don't you use anything?

16 October 2012

How I use my calendar

Not my calendar, but very similar
I've written about my organizational methods before. I've talked about my task lists and my day planners. But that was when I was a freelance writer. Now that I have a traditional job as a marketing writer, my methods have changed.

I'm the type of person who has to write things down. That's why I make lists (almost) compulsively. And now that I work part of the week in the office and part of the week from home, it's even more important for me to keep track of my projects and deadlines. So my calendar has become a task list and planner in one.

The planner I use has monthly and weekly pages. I use the weekly pages for everything from appointments and birthdays to my tasks and deadlines for the day. I use the monthly pages as an overview of deadlines, appointments, meetings, and events.

It looks messy, but it helps keep me on top of everything. It also helps me see what days I have time to do other things (coffee with friends, for example). Days that aren't completely full of scribbles might have room for something.

Of course, there are things that need to stand out (like Tink's doctors' appointments), so anything that's important and personal gets highlighted in yellow, and anything that's important and work-related (like a conference or retreat) gets highlighted in pink. That's just enough to allow those items to stand out on my calendar.

Examples of my task lists
I still make weekly task lists, and then use those lists to create my daily lists within the planner. I've started keeping my weekly task lists in my planner with a paperclip so everything is together.

It may not be the most effective organizational method, but it works really well for me. I'm able to keep everything together, stay on top of my projects and deadlines, and have it in a format that can come with me everywhere I go.

How do you stay organized?

15 October 2012

Why I need a whiteboard in my home office

There's a whiteboard in my on-site office for work. I love it because I can write notes to myself, keep track of upcoming deadlines, and do brainstorming for ad copy.

Unfortunately, I work from home three days a week, and there's no whiteboard in my home office. It's not really been a problem, just an inconvenience. I got used to having one at work.

The good news is that I do own a whiteboard. It's currently taking up space in my sister's basement, so the next time I'm at my sister's house, I'm going to get it, toss it in the back of my car, and bring it home to hang next to my big calendar. (Of course, after that, the challenge will be having two different whiteboards in two different offices, and keeping them coordinated.)

Do you use a whiteboard in your office? Why or why not?

14 October 2012

Renew Your Spirit Sunday with Music

This morning, my church celebrated our music minister's 25th anniversary serving as choir director. I'm in the choir at church, and since joining the choir, I've been reminded of how important music is to my spiritual life.

I was told once that music is a form of prayer, and that has always stuck with me. And I've found that, when I feel the need to pray but I don't have the words, my mind turns to familiar hymns I know by heart.

Music can encourage, inspire, uplift, and let you escape--even briefly--from whatever has been bearing down on you throughout the week. Generally, you can find music to fit any mood, or to speak to you in exactly the way you need, regardless of what you're going through. So I encourage you to turn to music if you need to renew your spirit. Turn on Pandora or set your iPod to shuffle or pick a favorite song. Whether you like to listen to hymns or classical or trance or country, let music touch you today.

10 October 2012

NaNoWriMo prep: finding a story

It’s still early in October, so there’s still lots of time to get ready for NaNoWriMo. One good way to help prepare is to, you know, come up with a story. Some people do just start writing on November 1st without a plan or even an idea, but having a story before you start will give you a direction.

I’m writing LitFic this year, so my story is sort of...complicated. It’s one of those “Do you want to know what happens or what it’s about?” kind of stories. But I do have a story to get me started.

As you think about how to approach NaNoWriMo, the important thing to remember is that the goal is simply to get you writing. You don’t have to have the plot for the next great American novel. You just need a story to tell. It might be serious or funny or silly or full of plot holes. All you need is a story.

I’m a big advocate for outlines, but I know it’s not everyone’s favorite background work. So instead of an outline, think about Freytag’s Pyramid. The elements are: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement (resolution). If you fill in basic events for each of those elements of Freytag’s Pyramid, you’ll have a basic story for NaNoWriMo. It can be as simple as that.

You may decide you want to sit down on November 1st and just start writing whatever comes to mind. If you do, great. I admire that; I can’t do that. But if you need a starting point, the best place to start is a basic story arc. If you know where you’re starting and where your story is supposed to go, filling in the rest will be easy.

Do you have a story idea for NaNoWriMo already? If so, what is it?

08 October 2012

NaNoWriMo prep: committing to the challenge

Once again, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is approaching, and it's time to start thinking about how to cram novel-writing into an already busy schedule and life.

I'm doing NaNoWriMo this year in an attempt to finally finish the coffee house book. (Since the story of the coffee house book has changed so much since I first wrote it for NaNo--and I've essentially started over with all the background work--I've decided it counts to write this month.) To do that, I'm making a double commitment/challenge. This month, I will finish the background work needed to start writing the coffee house, and during November, I will write the first draft of the coffee house book.

For those who have never done NaNoWriMo, let me explain. The event takes place in November every year and is the opportunity for the "someday" writers to sit down and actually get it done. The challenge is to write 50,000+ of a book in 30 days. I have participated off and on since 2004 and "won" twice. (And really, the coffee house book began as an idea for NaNoWriMo.) For those who participate, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience, reminding you that you can make time to sit and write the story that's been following you around for years.

Yes, it's difficult. And I have a dear friend and fellow writer who did it and then swore to me--and everyone who would listen--she would never do it again. But I have another friend who did and not only has she done it every year since, but also participates in Camp NaNoWriMo throughout the year.

Now please don't think that you have to write a finished novel in 30 days. That's not what this is about. It's simply about putting the words down on the page. Sure, the overall goal is to write a novel, but the real goal is to prove to yourself you can make the time to write.

That's the biggest excuse, isn't it? You say you don't have time to write a novel. I've even used that excuse recently. But NaNoWriMo takes that excuse away. Because if you can write a novel draft in 30 days, there's no reason you can't carry that over to the rest of the year to tell the stories you want to tell.

If you've never done NaNoWriMo before, I urge you to try it this year. I'll be doing it right along with you. You never know what you're capable of until you sit down and actually try it. Take the challenge and on December 1st, you'll have a story. Even if you don't hit 50,000 words by the end of the month, every word you write will be one more word you didn't have on October 31st, and that's something, isn't it?

Are  you doing NaNoWriMo this year? What are you going to be writing?

07 October 2012

Renew Your Spirit Sunday with an untitled poem

I wrote this poem recently and would like to share it today. Poetry is a good way to renew your spirit and find connections with the world around you. Enjoy!

an untitled poem by the Coffee-stained Writer

alarm clock
crack of dawn
big yawn
coffee drip
don't trip on the
hall rug
damn cat
blouse is pressed
get dressed
keys in hand and
out the door
in once more for
a forgotten file
toddler smiles
one more wave
"You two behave!"
in the car
country road
for an hour or so
meeting 1
meeting 2
coffee break
take a call
work through lunch
watch the clock
coffee break
out the door
file in hand
watch for deer
in the dusk
big hugs
big meal
time for bath
say your prayers
here's your bear
story read
and in bed
quiet moment
space to breathe
leave the dishes
'til tomorrow's
alarm clock
crack of dawn

01 October 2012

Working partially remotely

One of the good things about my shiny, new job is that I work partially remotely. Part of the week I work from my home office and part of the week I work in the company office.

Working from home is not a new concept to me, so that wasn't a big deal. The transition I had to make was working from home only part of the week. Not only do I have to shift mentalities based on where I'm working that day, but I have to make sure I prioritize my task lists in a way that uses my time wisely based on where I'm working that day.

Working from home

The days I work from home are usually more productive in terms of actual writing work. Since I'm not in the office there are fewer distractions. I may have phone meetings, but most of the days are spent creating words and rearranging them. The team is always just a phone call, email or IM away if needed, but those days are quiet days of work.

Working in the office

The days I work in the office are the days I touch base with my supervisor and team and go to meetings. These are also organizational days. One of my days in the office is always at the beginning of the week (Monday or Tuesday, usually), so I get my weekly task lists in order, find out what everyone else is doing for the week, and make sure I have what I need to work from home on my remote days. Sometimes that means interviewing a coworker or doing research, other times that means getting materials together and having a one-on-one meeting with my boss.

When I was freelancing, I had to prioritize projects, stay on track with deadlines and make sure I had what I needed from clients in order to get work done. The same is true in my current job, but now I have the added benefit of being able to touch base with team members and coworkers to help me.

I haven't been at my shiny, new job very long, but I think working partially remotely is more of a challenge than being in the office all the time or at home all the time. Like anything else, it's about finding a balance that works for you, as well as staying organized, but shifting your mindset a few times a week can be difficult sometimes. (Not to mention getting used to writing with my shoes on....) But I'm glad I have the schedule I do. I like being able to have days at home to devote to writing, and I like having days in the office to connect with the team and get organized.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of your work schedule?