Saturday, June 25, 2022

What We're Writing Week : Julia is scheduling and sprinting

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Everyone this week has been talking about the many jobs that come along with the title "author;" researching, editing, promotion - even teaching others (which is always also about teaching ourselves as well.) Sometimes, one of the jobs that comes along with being an author is "relearning the habit of but in chair, hands on keyboard."


As some of you may remember, my Word for the Year is DEEP WORK, because I'm devoting myself to retraining my oh-so-distractable brain to do the sort of demanding creative work I used to do without really thinking about it. I've gotten a lot of help from our own Celia Wakefield, who has worked miracles with my ability to self-organize, and I've also greatly benefited from my friend Jessica Ellicott, who really, really needs to teach a course about her "so stress free even I can do it" outlining technique and who has encouraged me to try different mind hacks for keeping myself on track and writing.

The ability to be creative is not, perhaps, a muscle, but the ability to sit in the damn chair and not get up until you've written your words for the day most certainly is. Yes, I've had good reasons to let my writing muscles get flabby over the past four or five years, but you know, none of those hold true anymore. The Maine Millennial has moved out with her dog and cat, the Sailor is safe at home in Virginia with his sweetheart, and Youngest is a college grad who is 100% self-supporting. It is past time for me to get cracking.

Photo by Brooke Staton, @mainememoriesphoto


So recently, I've tried two things that has led to great results. The first it scheduling my writing time. I know, I know, can you believe I didn't before? Now I have it set up, complete with notifications and a program that puts my phone on Do Not Distract automatically. 

The second - and this surprised me - is sprinting. From my college days, I've always been the sort of person who writes fast and well when under a deadline. The problem for me is the end-of-the-book deadline is WAY too far away, and frankly, is more of a suggestion in my case. My poor beleaguered publisher gave up keeping me on deadline about a decade ago. Even scheduling a perfectly normal three hour writing session allows me to kind of.. drift. Maybe I have time for a load of laundry?

But if the timer's on for an hour and a half, I've discovered I write. Fast. No time to linger over every word as is my tendency. No time to think and rethink every choice. Get it down, because the clock is ticking. And really, I start each day's writing with a quick pass-through of yesterday's words, so I can fix the most egregious errors then.

Is it working? Reader, it is, as you can see from this excerpt from AT MIDNIGHT COMES THE CRY.


Oh, my God.” Tiny raced to the window. “Oh.” She sounded as if she had just finished a five hundred meter sprint. “It's okay. It's a friend of Cal's.”

Clare joined her at the window. A fully tricked out pick up pulled sung against the downstairs. They watched as a beefy guy climbed out, ran his hand over his stubbled hair, and stared at Clare's car. He walked toward the downstairs, disappearing from view beneath the deck.

Is he coming in?”

Tiny shook her head. “You can't get from one floor to another inside. You have to go around and through the outside door. We use it like a garage – it's got Cal's workroom and the chest freezer down there. It's not even heated.”

The man reemerged carrying a couple of small duffle bags. He slung them into his truck cab and then headed for the railroad tie stairs.

Oh, crap.” Tiny set Rose back into her playpen.

Should I, um, leave?”

I don't know what he wants. Maybe he needs to use the bathroom.” Tiny opened the door and stepped onto the deck. Clare slung her diaper bag over her shoulder and followed, her hand tight on the baby carrier. “Hey, Dillon.” Tiny passed her hand through the air. “Cal's not here.”

I can see that.” Dillon had the look of a high school linebacker running to fat, his neck overflowing his chamois shirt collar, his gut straining against the buttons. He wore a pair of wraparound sun glasses that made him look like an out-of-shape version of Robocop. “Who's this?”

Clare and Tiny looked at each other. “It's, uh, Clare?”

Clare held up the carrier. “We're having a Mommy-baby date.” She used her brightest, most brainless voice. “Rose and Ethan are both eight months old. And they're both our firsts. It's really nice to compare notes with another mom, isn't it, Tiny?”

Tiny nodded emphatically. The big guy looked back toward where he'd parked his truck. “Does Cal know you invited somebody out here?”

As subdued by her husband as she was, even Tiny bristled at that. “No, but he will when he gets home, and I honestly don't see as it's any of your business, Dillon.”

Clare did her best giggle. “I can't imagine he pays that much attention to scheduling play dates.”

He held up his hands. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just, uh...” he focuses on Clare's parka. “You look like you're ready to leave.”

Clare glanced at Tiny. “I was about to, yes.”

Well, you should go out first.”

Why?”

Uh...”

Clare wondered if she was the first person to ever question Dillon, or just the first woman. She glanced back to Tiny, and saw she was looking as stressed as she had been when Clare first arrived. “Never mind.” She hugged the other woman tight. “I hope we can do this again soon.”

Julia: Dear readers, what are your mind hacks for getting stuff done? And have you been successful in revamping old habits into new ones?

70 comments:

  1. Hhhmmm . . . Dillon makes me very nervous. [I’m so looking forward to reading “At Midnight Comes the Cry.”] . . . .

    So far, the old habits have withstood the test of time. No mind hacks, though . . . I’m wonderful at procrastination, but somehow everything always seems to get done.

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    1. Joan, it was the fact I'm good at procrastinating that gave me the idea about setting the timer. I'll wait until the last possible minute... so I need to give myself that minute!

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  2. Susan Nelson-HolmdahlJune 25, 2022 at 4:29 AM

    I am an attorney and the part of my day that I enjoy the most is legal research and writing legal documents. I write quickly and we’ll because the time pressure in my day is real and unrelenting. I write for minty minutes at the start of the day when my mind is fresh, quick and resilient.
    The rest of the day is seeing and dealing with client issues, which is 70% of my time unfortunately. No hacks, since I am the only attorney, I need to get all my tasks completed. I try to have time to write at the end of my day too, as a reward for getting the other arduous duties completed.
    I enjoyed the excerpt you shared, and look forward to reading At Midnight Comes The Cry next year.

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    1. Susan Nelson-HolmdahlJune 25, 2022 at 4:38 AM

      Typos should be well and ninety.

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    2. It did sound as if your mind was fresh and minty, Susan!

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    3. Me, too, Susan! I like the idea of a minty-fresh mind.

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    4. Susan Nelson-HolmdahlJune 25, 2022 at 8:15 PM

      I don’t like mint! A minty mind is an interesting idea!😎

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  3. A teaser for your book--hurray! I'm already caught up in it, so please keep going--good luck! As for getting writing done more efficiently, I find that it helps if I set realistic goals--not too many hours or words a day, or I get discouraged. If I don't overdue my expectations of myself, then, when I manage to do MORE than I've set myself to do, I feel really good about my day and am encouraged to go on. Kind of a childish game, but I guess we all find little tricks to keep ourselves writing. My trick for soothing my brain when I'm stuck on the page is going out on the balcony and deadheading flowers for about ten minutes (not sure what I do instead in the winter.) Whatever works, right?

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    1. Great to see your three grownup kids!

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    2. Kim, setting realistic goals has been a game changer for me. I always wrote fifteen items on a to-do list and then the day collapsed when I only got three done - or two, and something new popped up. Celia says only assign three tasks per day, which sounds crazy low but I've found, like you, I can actually get those three tasks done, and as you say, if I exceed them, it's a gold star day for me and I feel great, rather than like a failure for "only" accomplishing four things.

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  4. That is a beautiful family photo, Julia — and I can't wait to reconnect with Clare and Russ!

    For the first time, I am trying to write (really, just outlining at this stage), and I'm discovering that I, too, need the pressure of an immediate deadline. As a schoolteacher on my feet lecturing five hours a day I was constantly pushed by schedule — I stayed up late to write out all my notes, got up early, worked through weekends. Discipline seemed to be second nature. But now, as a retiree, I sit down at my computer and I, too... drift. I have doggedly turned off browsers and after twenty minutes found, to my horror, that my fingers have clicked them on again and I'm reading emails or the news! Or I'm washing dishes or making a list of farm work that needs to be done. Elizabeth George has written that one secret of writing success is "bum glue" and I'm working on developing that adhesive. It's a challenge.

    Great idea with the timer. Though I've told myself "two hours" I had not thought to have an immediate visual nudge.

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    1. I hear you, Milkmaid. Some of the most productive writing times in my life was when I had young children at home - because I had to get everything done during school hours. I tried a three hour stretch at first and found THAT was still too long. Ninety minutes does it for me. At least for now - I plan to stretch that out as I get better at it!

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  5. So glad you are writing again.

    When my dissertation would get stuck, I would take walks in the woods and listen to myself as I reasoned out loud. Now days, I think the problem is a lack of pressure. I don't have to, so I don't. Haven't figured out how to motivate. Looking forward to hearing the techniques others use.

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    1. Really, CD, we all need to be Liam Neeson, with the clock ticking before the terrorists/gangsters/FBI do something terrible to his daughter/wife/dog. You never see him procrastinating!

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  6. Yay, Julia! I'm so glad you're getting back on course. And I love the scene (scared for Tiny...).

    I've been a committed sprinter for nearly a decade, since I left my last day job, thanks to Ramona DeFelice Long (sniff), who would start her sprint group going at seven every morning. We'd all check in from wherever and write for an hour. Now Wende Dickec carries it on in a FB group called Ramona's Sprint Club. Many of the writer-commenters here are members (all are welcome - just ask to join https://www.facebook.com/groups/270472177602954). It's the best way to start my writing day. I take a break after my first sprint (and maybe put in that load of laundry) then do several more during the morning until my 1500 words are done.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Dikec (I always spell it wrong).

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    3. And I meant to mention how much I love that family photo!

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    4. Thanks, Edith! We had a whole session the weekend Youngest graduated. It was a great experience - if your looking for a pro, I can highly recommend Brooke at Maine Memories.

      Yeah, I've known others who were regular sprinters, and it always seemed like so much PRESSURE to me I never tried it. Who knew it was so effective? Once I get my current habit well established, I plan to do as you do, and tackle more than one sprint per day.

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  7. It's a gorgeous photo Julia! And I can't tell you how happy we are to hear that your hacks are working. Like attorney Susan, my mind is better in the am so I try to get my words written after I have coffee and sniff around our blog and my email. Sometimes if the words are coming, I'll write again in the afternoon. It's hard work, writing a book!!

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    1. I always feel like such a whiner saying that, Lucy, but you're right, it IS hard work! And I'm hoping if someone starting out at the gig sees a long-time veteran writer like me can struggle, they'll feel better about their own problems.

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  8. I love this excerpt. Not liking Dillon at all.

    I schedule specific time to do items. Do blog work when I get up before I go to work. Do blog work when I get home before I eat dinner. Do blog work for a few hours on the weekend, still giving me time to read.

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    1. Yeah, scheduling has been a game-changer for me, Dru. I find even if I move the work blocks around as I did today - it's super hot here, so I did my outside gardening work in the morning instead of waiting until after commenting here and writing - they're still there on my calendar and phone, and I know they need to be checked off.

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  9. Julia, so glad you are getting organized to write again. This snippet is terrifying, as are most of the segments you share. Your fans are very invested in your characters and the last book left all of them in new, and in some cases unknown territory. We gently urge you on, deadline or no.

    Your family photo is stunning!

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  10. Dillon is completely creepy! I'm very excited about the book, which I know I will savor from start to finish. Your family photo is amazing. As an inveterate procrastinator, I don't have life hacks to share==I do manage to muddle through.

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    1. Thanks, Gillian. And I don't mind muddling through the rest of my life, as long as the writing/ blogging/ author stuff gets done!

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  11. Yes, mornings are best for me too although I have emails to read, JRW to read and coffee to drink. I can’t seem to get a schedule going. Lately when I sit at the computer I’ve been directly trying to figure out how I get my plots worked out. Actually trying to analyze the process. I pick up a notebook write few ideas down. For me to start writing I have to see the scene in front of me in my head and it has to be in order. Then I can write relatively quickly. Sometimes I try to map out the entire story in my head and of course nothing gets written that day. I am in awe of writers who can come up with an idea, grab a notebook, outline the whole darn thing then schedule the hours to make it so. I always feel as though I’m lurching from scene to scene, then suddenly it’s done. Of course then I have to make some sense of it! I think if I could outline properly, writing for me would be much easier, so I think I’m a hybrid? And then there’s the dog, and lunch and ... sigh. That is a scary except Julia, wonderful ...
    Joyce W.

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    1. Thank you, Joyce! So I'm sort of hybrid, like you, and I think that's why I've been able to use Jessica Ellicott's technique. In a nutshell, she puts the major story beats on Post-it-notes, figures out what happens in those scenes, then fills in the scenes in between. It can be as detailed or not - mine isn't very detailed at all - but it's helped my enormously in not starting each day anguishing, "What comes next?"

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  12. Love your family photo and your WIP excerpt! Normally I do my best writing first thing in the morning, but with the heat dome parked over the midwest and a mandatory early morning two mile dog walk, I've had better luck in late afternoon, when I can't procrastinate any longer. I use the walk as my thinking time.

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    1. Margaret, I've had several days where I haven't been able to write in the morning (family stuff and today, the heat got me outdoors early rather than in the afternoon.) I've always been a morning writer, and I've been surprised to find with the clock ticking, I'm just as productive at 4pm. Obviously, there could easily be cases where that's not true because I'm just beat, but otherwise. it's working for me.

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  13. That family photo is BEAUTIFUL! The WIP excerpt is scary and intriguing: Who is Tiny? Why is Dillon so horrid? I know the *theory* of the timer idea: it moves the 'deadline' right up to in front of my nose and ticks away at me until I've 'done my time' -- now I just need to implement it at my own desk! It even has a name: the Pomodoro technique.

    "The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a kitchen timer to break work into intervals, typically 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for tomato, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used as a university student." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

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    1. I've heard that term, Amanda, but I didn't know where it came from! An actual ticking sound would make me crazy, but I know Alexa is sitting in the kitchen, ready to ding me at the end of ninety minutes, so off I go!

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  14. Julia, you did a great job of giving Dillon an air of chill menace, and setting the scene for something creepy.

    Great family portrait! That Ross sure had some strong genes, didn't he?

    I'm a master procrastinator, although somehow everything gets done. I definitely work best when my back is against the wall: company is on the way, the tax deadline is tomorrow, etc. Drives my methodically plodding husband to distraction. Heh, heh.

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    1. Karen, I'm just the gestation vessel for the Hugo-Vidal genes.

      I got the idea for the timer because I was listening to a podcast with Stephen Guise, and he was talking about how MANY people procrastinate and the different reasons they do. He suggests the sprint as a way to rush yourself past emotions and just do the work. He also has a great suggestion about the mini-start - tell yourself you'll just write fifty words. That's it. He said in the beginning, it's more important to establish the habit and feel successful at it than to pay attention to how productive you are. Productivity follows habit.

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    2. Julia, one of my aunts has the same genetic vessel thing. All three of her kids look exactly like their dad's family, and nothing like our side.

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    3. My kids are the opposite. When they were children and one of their father's friends met them, it would always be, "He looks so much like John." My friends and relatives claimed the opposite. It was my beloved Aunt Jo who looked at baby Allan, looked at John (whom she was meeting for the first time), looked at me, and said, "You guys didn't diversify the gene pool at all." So true. My sons have shortish, sturdy, blue-eyed, mostly Celtic stock on both sides!

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  15. Fabulous photo, Julia, and what a great excerpt. Cannot wait for release day.

    When I lost my job and decided to write full-time figuring out the schedule was the hardest part. It's still a work in progress two years later, but it is getting better. Like Edith (waves) I'm a member of Ramona's sprint group. My sprint time is not first thing in the morning, but I do check in every day and name my goal. It keeps me accountable. Then, after I finish my daily chores, it's time to dig in. I do a timed hour of whatever I'm doing that day - and after I scowl at the timer, I keep on going until I'm done for the day - usually two to three hours. works well.

    Curious about Jessica's outlining system. I'm looking for the magic bullet!

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    1. Kait, one of the most interesting and humbling thing about changing habits is realizing how long it takes and what a work in progress it is. And of course, let's not forget the little bump in all our roads called the pandemic...

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  16. Happy looking people in that picture. I plan and plan, in my head, but am a master at procrastinating. (She said proudly?) And I would never claim the title of writer, I'm just talking about life. Well, maybe those extra events in our lives outside the daily norm. Great teaser, can't wait to read the complete book.

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  17. Thanks for sharing the photo, Julia! Such a strong sense of love and connection between you all comes through loud and clear.

    I already hope someone beats the crap out of Dillon and am worried about Tiny and Ethan and whatever Clare has gotten into.

    Whatever you're doing, keep going! You;re ratcheting up the suspense for your readers with every snippet you share.

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  18. Oh Julia that family photo is just so perfect! I love it. Beautiful children, beautiful mom. Can I make one criticism? I don't know how important the character of Cal will turn out to be, but could you give him another name perhaps? A couple of Clares and Cals on the same page reminded me of some stand-up routine. That said, I believe you know best so all will be well.

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    1. Don't worry, Judi, Cal is a stand-in nae until I can research a little and settle on something better. In fact, the only name I'm sure of with the new characters I'm introducing is Tiny, because it has a whole backstory - and it's so evocative. My grandfather's name was Calvin, so I'd never have a bad guy with that name in a finished book!

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    2. Glad to hear it! I have a cousin named Calvin, but that isn't why I made my suggestion.

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  19. Hallie here - reserving a time and setting a timer - nothing beats it! Love the excerpt Julia !

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    1. Thanks, Hallie! Now I have to try it to get myself cooking decent meals again...

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  20. Great snippet, Julia. About time, when I worked, I’d take the car to the repair shop and get their shuttle and be to work on time by 7am. Retired, taking the car to the shop can be an all morning affair. Somehow having more time does not allow more work to be accomplished, but allows the same amount of work to ooze into the longer amount of time. It’s time for me to start the timer!

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    1. It's so true, Susan. Work expands to fill the time available. Or rather, fiddling about the work expands to fill that time!

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  21. Great advice, Julia. And comforting, always, to know other people suffer from ..uh..call it "distractability" ? I am going to try the timer to get me back on the multiple sidetracks of the last few years. Thank you!

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    1. We should start a group. "Hi, my name is Julia, and I have Adult ADD."

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    2. Love it!

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  22. Great advice, Julia. And comforting, always, to know other people suffer from ..uh..call it "distractability" ? I am going to try the timer to get me back on the multiple sidetracks of the last few years. Thank you!
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  23. PS Wonderful photo. Looking forward to next book, too. Good for you!

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  24. SO great! And that photo is perfect. Yes, it's all about deadlines, I agree. I set my timer for 34 minutes, and promise myself not to do anything else for that 34 minutes. If I don't keep my promise to myself, what does that say about my priorities? Also, I MUST write at least 680 words a day, preferably 1000. It's my job, my responsibility, I do that. I've realized tend to write later in the day (maybe my get-ready-for-the 6 pm-news metabolism? If, so okay, that's fine. I can do it whenever I want. But if I don't do it, who will? And that does not end well.

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    1. Well, it ends like me, Hank - getting out a book every three years! All I want to do is get back to the place where I was producing a book a year. That's attainable, and would make my life SO much easier (and less guilt ridden...)

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  25. Julia, I adore the photo!! You and the kids all look wonderful!! Love the snippet, too. So much tension in that little segment. I can't wait to this book and I'm glad you're finding ways to get your writing back on track. What got me through the latest book (those 550 pages lol) was setting blocks of writing time and doing my version of sprints. I don't set a timer, but I mark it in my planner and at the end I put in how many words in that session. I also write my word goal and how many words I actually wrote at the end of the day. My best writing time is late afternoon, from about four to seven, so I'm always running on a late schedule.

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    1. P.S. I want Celia's life organizing and Jessica's outlining tips!

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    2. I've told each of them they need to teach a class. Maybe we can organize a JRW online Zoom university!

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    3. Exactly like me, Debs! I keep track, I have a chart. And that's my timing, too. Kinda funny.

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  26. I needed this - will practice the Pomodoro technique on my closet. It’s been 2 months of retirement - yesterday I donated 2 dozen suits, but the rest of the closet contents are strewn about the guest room. Need to wrap up this brand sorting out!
    Lisa in Long Beach

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    1. Lisa, I hear you on this - I have so much purging and reorganizing of household spaces now the Maine Millennial has moved out. I haven't tried a timer, but I will - presumably it will stop me from pausing to "just look at a few things" and then spending the next hour going over a kid's elementary school yearbook.

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  27. Oh Julia, what a beautiful picture that is of you and the "kids"! I know you must be so proud of how your children have grown up into these fine young adults. So much joy to look forward to with them.

    Thank you for the excerpt from At Midnight Comes the Cry. I was immediately drawn into it and can't wait to read more. And, what a timely excerpt, when women are once again being relegated to second class citizens with men lording over us.

    Your talking of sprinting made me think of Ramona DeFelice Long and her sprinting sessions for writers. Edith has already talked about Ramona and those daily sessions. I wasn't a part of those, but I miss talking to Ramona online.

    I'm so glad that your techniques of setting a time span and setting a timer are working for you. I really need to set some time frames for getting things done, too. The trouble is sticking to them after setting them. You sound like your having great success with sticking to your hacks.

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    1. Accountability helps! I get check-ins from my friends, which helps keep me on task. It's a lot harder to make excuses for others than to make excuses for myself.

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    2. Damn it. I didn't check again, and my comments posted as Anonymous. Julia, those comments were from me.

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  28. Lovely picture and great snippet. Kudos on your organization too. Looking forward to see what happens next to Tiny!

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  29. Love, love, love the picture of the fam, Julia. BIG HEART EMOJI!!! That being said, I hear you ont he struggle to get things done. My brain became insanely distractible over the past few years much like my body can no longer regulate temperature - I'm either hot or cold but never just right. Now that Hooligan 2 has moved out and I've gotten over Covid, pneumonia, and a sprained wrist, I feel like I should be able to get back on track.
    But now you've tempted me with your excerpt - Oh, I love your series!!! - and I am waiting eagerly for your book to come out. Keep up the good work. Your readers await!

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