FINISHING THE BOOK: MOTIVATING WITH SMALL MILESTONES

“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin

Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was good in auditions. Really good. For every show, I was the guy throwing a kicking-and-screaming Aldonza over his shoulder and hauling her off-stage.  Great fun, discounting make-up and tight pants.

 

Aldonza and Muleteers

(I’m not in this photo.)

 

I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)

But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.

But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back for second helpings.

Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, and I continue to get positive feedback from other writers and editors, but my confidence went way down every time I looked at the forward work. “I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March.” Comparing the few spare hours I have each week for writing with the enormity of project left me emotionally bankrupt. How can I even start on a project that “will never be finished?”

Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.

When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?”  I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap subcontracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.

And the exercise made writing therapeutic again. The project wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable parts and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.

Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me that small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.

I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .

What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?

 

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FINISHING THE BOOK: MOTIVATING WITH SMALL MILESTONES

Personal Essay: Swimming Cell Phones

What drew me to Fantasy and Science Fiction as a child was its emphasis on possibility. You can slay (or tame) that dragon. You can destroy the ring. Good triumphs over evil. New technology forces us to grips with our shortcomings and helps us remember our humanity. Though both genres offer examples where this is NOT the case (I Am Legend, Richard Matheson and A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin), this focus has often pushed me to ask the question “what if . . .” in my own life. Why not challenge overwhelming odds?

“Why not try out for the middle school starting fullback position on the football team? Never mind that I’m 90 pounds, sopping wet.”

“Why not ask that girl out? So what if she is out of my league?”

“What if I audition for the high school musical? Who cares if I’m I a senior and have never taken theatre before?”

“What if I self-publish this story?”

My best experiences come from dreaming big and following through. So when your Nokia 5310 GSM goes for a swim, dream big:

Saturday, November 6, 2010
The lifespan of your average cell phone is longer if it doesn’t go swimming in Clearlake, which is exactly what ours did last week, and all our contacts with it. (Not my fault.)

On Saturday I decide to mount a recovery effort. I pack up the kids and some essentials—socks, flippers, flipper-booties, snorkel mask, trunks—and head on back to the dock. Just so you know, the mask isn’t to see better.  The bottom of Clearlake is actually buried in 8-inches of mud, oyster shells, and alligator droppings. It’s murky as all getout down there. The mask is actually for keeping the icy salt water off my cheeks and eyes.

I get all that stuff on, leaving the kids under a pile of clothes on the dock for insulation.  They promise me they’ll sit. Unfortunately, the water is colder than I’ve anticipated and they giggle and run for high ground when I thrash in the water. They settle down after I assure them I won’t splash anymore. By now I’m too numb. They resume their assigned tasks of watching for alligators, keeping my emergency towels dry, and not falling in.  Some of them shout helpful hints like, “You’re probably not going to find it,” and “I’m cold.”

I agree: it’s cold. I’ve only found a beer bottle. There’s nothing to see. It’s dark and cold down there and the only comfort is the fact that the mud is a few degrees warmer than the water. I climb up onto the dock.

“Get back in the water dad,” my five-year-old daughter, Eve, insists. She’s already said a prayer to help me find the phone, and she’s not about to let me give up. She uses her sweet-and-matter-of-fact-voice: “You need to look a little farther out.”

So I make a few passes a little farther out. I’m 8 feet under and about 10 feet from the dock now. The water is icy and the mud is still black. The oyster shells are still scratchy. I swim as low as I can and hold my breath. This isn’t very long, because my chest keeps shriveling up and forcing the air out of my lungs thanks to the cold temperature. It’s been 15 minutes and staying out any longer would be foolishness. A SIM card is not worth this. . . .

My hand brushes over something rectangular and hard, right where Eve told me to look.No kidding.

I get out and strip down to my trunks, ignoring the “NUTJOB!” looks from passing motorists.

Eve hands me my towel and I hand her the phone. “Hold it carefully,” I say ineffectually as the phone slides down the slanted dock ramp. Luckily, it snags on a traction rail. This time I zip it into the jacket that Carter (7) has reluctantly returned to me.

“I’m cold.”

“Yeah, me too. Can you help me carry some of this stuff?”

Olivia (3) hops around gleefully on the way back to the car. “You did it, daddy! You did it!” Eve’s carrying the wet mask. Carter’s got my pair of corderoys wrapped around his neck like an extra-long scarf.

After a short operation at home, it’s obvious that the SIM card works. I know because we put it in a somewhat drier, older model phone that we’d been using as kid bait for the last few years.

When my wife gets home she is shocked to see the old phone operating under brain transplant. “I thought that phone was gone forever!”

“Some of it may be,” I respond, “but the contact list isn’t.”

Dream big.

Nokia GSM 5310 (2)

Personal Essay: Swimming Cell Phones

What made you smile today?

I worked a bunch of hours today and didn’t have any high expectations, except maybe for  the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. But today wasn’t so bad:

1) I got a call from my beautiful wife.

2) I got a call from my older brother.

3) I got a ton of work done, both NASA and NOVEL . . .

4) And I got tagged in a funny post. (I don’t know why, but seeing someone reading your book in print, when you haven’t publicized it, put a huge grin on my face. Yeah, the print version is live!)

Thanks for each of you that made my day special.

Facebook Surprise from Virginia

And thanks to the USWNT for a strong defensive performance. Cheers!

What made you smile today?

1-Star Review: Acceptance Speech

I just received notification of my first 1-star review on Amazon. This is an important career milestone. I’d like to take a moment to issue my acceptance speech:

Thank you. Thank you all! I am both humbled and elated! I’d like to thank my publisher for letting me post my fiction without the least bit of professional editing, my beta readers (all twenty of you—you know who you are), and my mother, who has always told me I’m worth something, and been slightly supportive of my cheeky attitude, except when directed at her.

Oh well.

I’ve can’t say I didn’t see this moment coming, but I didn’t expect to see it so badly punctuated. (The criticism, not my preceding paragraph.) Bad punctuation is a disease, and it’s contagious. It also renders criticism—such as the following—difficult to decipher:

“Hard for Me to Classify…Sorry!  One for rainy days…glad I did not have to pay for this one. At least, it was short! But, not enough for me!”

Those last two commas are driving me crazy. Where are the grammar police when you need them? Is my critic somehow saying that DARTS was not enough for him? That he wanted it to be longer? Did they mean it would be easier to classify, by genre, on a rainy day, when life is less hectic? Or should I take this as a compliment? Houston receives about 50 inches of rain in an average year (NOAA.GOV). That’s a lot of opportunities for appreciating my novella!

Finally, there appear to be missing words.  Critics aren’t supposed to use ellipses to omit crucial words. That’s the sort of lazy trick we expect from college students. What good is half a criticism? For one thing, it encourages bad guesswork:

“Hard for Me to Classify all of these exclamation points, ellipses, and commas!  Sorry!  One for rainy days, isn’t it Gerard? It’s fortunate the commas and exclamation points are on sale!  I’m certainly glad I did not have to pay for this one. At least, it was short! But, not enough for me!”

What I would have liked from said detractor: a clear indication of what will make my stories better in the future.

Lacking that, I can only hope to untangle the riddle with time. Perhaps one of my alert readers—long live Dave Barry—can help clarify.

1-star review

1-Star Review: Acceptance Speech