Blogging in School

Disclaimer: I’m not going to claim that this is a tell-all blog on the secrets of blogging while under serious time constraints. I don’t have all of the secrets, and of the ones that I do have, many are specific to my particular situation, my particular daily routine, my specific mindset… But I’m going to share what I have here, in hopes that some of it may help you out too.

I’m a full time undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, taking 12-13 hours per semester, double majoring in mathematics and computer science, and working ~10 hours each week as a learning assistant for various math classes (This semester, it’s a probability class.). I love going to school, but the schoolwork in addition to the work work takes up a massive amount of time, probably 80-90 hours per week (All of my classes are upper division), and I place them as my top priority. In addition, for the first time in my life, I’m living in an apartment–with an utterly worthless roommate. This means that I have to make time for grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, etc. regularly, which cuts heavily into my remaining leisure hours. On top of this, because I’m not satisfied with having even a single free waking moment, I am trying to walk 10k+ steps per day, maintain a vigorous reading schedule, and review and post actively on this blog.

Last semester, I didn’t do a very good job of it. I slacked off on the blog, on the cleaning, heck, on pretty much everything except school and work. And occasionally sleep. It kind of sucked, so part of my project over the break was to get things in order so that I could have a better semester. I’m also taking classes that, hopefully, have a lighter workload, so I won’t be quite as overwhelmed, but that’s not enough for me to stay on top of blogging. Here’s a few of the things I’m doing to stay ahead and be able to write regular blog posts, including this one. While this is written to help find blogging time, it may help with your schedule even if you’re not trying to fit in blogging.

The largest, most obvious piece of advice is to use every waking moment. I make myself do this by writing up a schedule every day, usually the night before, where I list out activities by the 30 minute or hour level, such as right now, 8-9, Bus to campus and work on writing this post. I have found that if I don’t pre-specify what I should be doing at a specific point in time, I’ll just sit around and do nothing, or pick something easy and ignore the stuff that really needs to be done. I will also overestimate the amount of time I’ll have later, and that leads to late nights and very little sleep.

I also have to get enough sleep. I’ve spent several semesters of college operating on a very limited sleep schedule, with perhaps 5 hours of sleep per night, and it just makes me miserable and unproductive. I have found that I’m much happier if I make myself stop what I’m working on and go to sleep earlier, even if it means more activities for the next day. I’ve also found that reading before bed helps with this, and if I can grab 30 minutes of something—recently, LotR—while I’m lying in bed trying to get to sleep, it makes it much easier to fall asleep, calming my mind after a crazy day. I actually find I *save* time by doing this; without the reading it often can take me that much longer to fall asleep, unless I’m completely exhausted.

Once I have enough sleep and a schedule, I also have to find the time in my schedule to write the blog posts. Sometimes, it seems as if schoolwork takes up every hour of the day, leaving no time for non-necessities. I have to consider two more things that make it possible for me to do this. The first is knowing how to schedule efficient study time.

I am a block worker on many, many projects. It will take me a while, perhaps half an hour to an hour, to get into the mindset of difficult subjects, like my advanced mathematics class, and I find that there are simply some subjects where I cannot get anything done in a half an hour or an hour long block. When that’s all the time I have, I have to schedule activities that fit. Things that are self-contained, and perhaps not incredibly taxing. For example, taking a short online quiz for a class, or finding and printing a news article to turn in, or doing a 5 page assigned reading. Or doing part of a blog post. I schedule the more challenging subjects for longer blocks of time, such as when I’m home in the afternoons or over the weekend. This is one of the things that took me the longest to figure out—I have to use my time chunks efficiently, even if that means putting off the most difficult and urgent tasks until I can give them my undivided attention. Your methods may differ from mine, but you have to figure out what they are in order to schedule your time most efficiently.

You also have to learn to multi-task. I’ve started doing this to a large degree this semester by adding a few activities to my chart. My blog posts are done almost exclusively on the bus, with the exception of giving myself half an hour to an hour after they’re written to edit and post them on my blog, something that requires internet access. When walking, I am also listening to audiobooks, which is an immense help with my reading schedule. (Thanks Jessie!) I have to make myself do cleaning while dinner is cooking every day, and usually I’m messaging people and setting up my schedule for the next day while eating dinner. I take books with me to the bathroom, and as already mentioned, reading right before bed does double duty of calming my mind before sleep. Look for the opportunities to always be both physically and mentally engaged. Perhaps the most extreme example I have seen of this was a classmate in my calculus class a few years ago. The professor handed out notes, so it was not necessary to be writing during class, so that the we could pay closer attention to the lectures. The student (whose name slips my mind at the moment) spent the entire class, every time, knitting, and by the end of the semester, she had several scarves and good grades to show for her efforts. It was pretty cool.

Perhaps the best blog-specific advice I can offer is to think and write an outline ahead of time. This post is one of the best resources I’ve ever found for improving my word-count when I have time to do fiction writing, but the advice applies equally well to blog posts. If you write posts that you’re excited about and you’ve outlined and you know what you’re doing ahead of time, the writing will go much, much faster. Take those two minutes in the middle of class when you’ve finished the quiz and you’re waiting for everyone else to make a rough sketch in your mind–or on paper–of what you’re going to write about on the bus ride home that day. It really does help.

Turn the internet off while writing. That one doesn’t need any explanation.

Never lose track of your long-term goals, and at the end of each day, think about them for a few moments. If you’ve done your day right, scheduled in all of the productivity you can, and done your best to stick to the schedule (It’s impossible to do it perfectly and get *everything* done that you want to. Try anyway.), allow yourself to feel proud and satisfied with yourself. I’ve found that when I’ve had a good day, and I sit and reflect on it, even for a few moments, it leaves me in a good mood for the next day, which helps to boost my productivity. It’s a happy feedback loop, and once you get it started, it’s addictive.

Also, take time to enjoy yourself during the day. Yes, I say to schedule every waking moment. And my current schedule looks something like this…

The schedule is a few weeks old, but it's a good representation of my regular schedule.
The schedule is a few weeks old, but it’s a good representation of my regular schedule.

But I have to give myself some moments to relax and enjoy what I’m doing or else I’ll go insane. Lately, these have been my walks, during which I listen to and enjoy audiobooks, but once I get caught up with my schoolwork (I had a bad weekend. Bad days happen, and the best thing you can do is try to make the next day better.), I’m planning to schedule in a little more relaxation time every day so I don’t go from 50% to 100% utterly insane. 😉

This post was more rambling and less-blog specific than I had hoped, but hopefully there’s a few nuggets in here that may help you with your life, even if it’s not as insane as mine. I know that adopting the things I’ve mentioned here has gotten me off to a much better, and more productive start this semester than any in the past, and I’m really hoping that if I can stick with it, the feedback loop will keep me going and I’ll have a good semester.

Also, please comment below, and let me know what your favorite time-saving or productivity hacks are, especially those that help with your blog posts. Or, if you take one of my tips and it works, let me know!

Great Expectations (NOT the book)

You know those days that are supposed to be the most awesome days ever, the ones that you anticipate for weeks or even months, waiting and hoping, knowing it’s going to be awesome, and then you’re let down, not by the day, which was actually pretty good, but by your expectations, which were too high?

Today was not one of those days.

I’ve been looking forward to meeting Brandon Sanderson ever since he took over the Wheel of Time and I picked up Mistborn and enjoyed it. Since then, he has become my favorite author. I stalk him like most people do celebrities, always watching his Twitter, Facebook, blog, and so on. I also listen to his podcast, Writing Excuses, as well as pretty much any video on Youtube that he’s in, and any interview with him. A few months ago, he announced that he was making a stop in Austin, and I was so excited!

Well, that was today. Let me give you a run-down of the events that transpired today.

I live about two miles from the location of the signing, now. I was bringing 24 books with me, and taking 32 back, so I caught a bus, then walked about four blocks downtown to the convention center where the festival was being held.

Once there, I purchased the 8 new books (The festival had a policy of buy 1 book for every 3 personal copies you brought to be signed. I adhered to it, even though it was on the honor system.) and then met up with the person who used to baby-sit me when I was a kid. Like, a little kid, and I’m 21 now. Talk about a blast from the past.

I ate brunch at the dorm cafe before I left, because you’re not allowed outside food or drink in the convention center. Their water was $3.25, and I stopped looking before I freaked out over how much the food was. I didn’t buy anything all day from the concession stand. It’s not like I could, anyway. After buying all of the books, I’m pretty much out of money until I get a job.

I went to Brandon’s panel, but I’ll come back to that at the end. After his panel, I went to another panel with Cinda Williams Chima (and various other authors.). The mood of the second panel was much lighter and more fun than the first one, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. After the panels, I went downstairs and got all of my non-Sanderson books signed, including the other 6 that I bought that day, so I got to meet 5 new authors, and get my books by all of them personalized. That was awesome, in and of itself. Before today, I had never met a published author, and now I’ve met several. It was fantastic.

I’ve been a fan of Chima for a long time, and I have all of her books. While signing my stack, she made the comment, while looking at one of them, that “This is an old edition. You’ve been a fan for a long time, haven’t you?” That made me so happy, because yes, I have. I got a copy of The Enchanter Heir, which isn’t out until October 1st, so technically it’s an advance copy, though it’s the final thing, just released a little early, not an ARC. I’ll be reading that as soon as I can, though I will definitely not be finishing it until copies are legally released. This is a picture of me with Chima, and my stack of her books in front.

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Okay, enough about the other authors. Seeing them was fun, and it would have made for a good day anyway. But that wasn’t the real reason I went. Today, I met Brandon Sanderson. I saw his panel. He was on a panel with 5 other authors, but spent the majority of the time talking, and I don’t think anyone minded at all. I didn’t learn much new about him, other than that the thing he wants most in the future is a hover-board, and he’s annoyed that engineers haven’t designed one yet.

After the panel, while the authors went back to the green room, Sanderson went out into the hallway and signed books and chatted with fans. He said that he would just spend the hour doing nothing, and then sign the books later, or he could sign them now, and be done earlier at the official signing, so he chose to sign them now. His assistants asked him several times if he wanted to leave, and he declined each time, saying that he was perfectly fine, and quite enjoying himself, which he really looked like he was.

I brought with me the 3 Wheel of Time books he finished, 2 anthologies he is part of, and 13 of his novels, and 1 novella. I waited until the crowd has dispersed, because I had so many books, which basically means I allowed everyone else to cut in front of me. I then got my picture taken with him, and he signed all (19) of the books, personalizing every one except the anthologies. While he was signing, he chatted with me for a good 10-15 minutes, answering my questions and just, in general, being an incredibly nice guy. Below are a few pictures. The first is of my stack of books, now that I’m back. On the left are Sanderson’s books, as is the top book on the right-hand stack. The three GRRM books and the two above those did not get taken to the festival today, and are the only ones not signed. The bottom six books are Chima’s, which I got signed, and above that are all of my new books. (Chima’s latest book is right under Steelheart.)

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Here is Sanderson on his panel. My first proof that he is indeed a real person, and not just a fictional front for 5 other authors, who occasionally make videos to fool fans.IMG_5305

And here is me, with A MEMORY OF LIGHT!!!, signed by Sanderson.

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Oh, and Sanderson gave me a Steel-hunt code for having the most books of anyone that day, and said he would send me something else, which I’ll talk about once I get it. Not only did I get all of my books signed, as I expected, I also got to talk to my hero and get some special extras. I went expecting just the signatures, and that that would be awesome. I ended up with so much more! I went with high expectations. They were exceeded in every way!

I can now cross, if not number one, one of the top ten things off of my bucket list. Today was, quite likely, the best day of my life.

Now I’m going to go read Steelheart. I might get some sleep tonight, but who knows?

Goals.

I’m going to write another post about where I am, what’s been happening lately, and where I’m going with my non-writing life pretty soon, probably in the next week. I’ll give you a teaser for it here: I move out of home in 6 days to go to school.

This post, however, is going to talk about where I’ve been, where I am, and where I want to go in my writing life. I’ve decided it’s time to assess where I am, see if I like it or not, and see where I want to be a month, a year, a decade from now.

I’m working on a new project. A friend and I are working on an online game. He’s doing most of the coding, though I’m helping with that where I can. One of my majors is computer science, and trying to struggle through the code is good practice for me. But my major role in the project is the story. Many small games just have basic stories, or even no story at all, and they’re there only for the game. I understand these games; I play a few of them. I want our game to be different. Some of the large games–RuneScape, World of Warcraft–have novels that go with them. I don’t know if I’ll get that far, but I am writing background, flavor text, and some short stories to go along with the game, so that your progression actually makes sense, and so that there’s another level for the players to enjoy, if they choose to do so, and that they can ignore if they want to. I wrote my first short story for this two days ago, and I really enjoyed it, clocking in about 3,000 words in a single day, pretty much non-stop. I ran a quick grammar revision over it, and let a few gaming friends read it. So far reception has been pretty positive. My goals here are to get the game launched in a reasonable time-frame, and to continue writing short stories and back-ground text. I would like to have several ready to go when the game launches, and a new one every month or so as the game progresses, maybe less often. I’m not sure yet.

I’m close to finishing my NaNoWriMo novel. I’m 60,000 words in, and in the middle of what I think is the ending. My immediate goal is to make it through the novel, and set it aside/send it off to a few friends for comments. I hope to do this before classes start, and it’s what I’ll be spending all of my writing time doing for the next few days.

What will I work on after that?

What are my long-term, 10-year+ goals? I want to be a published author, with books in the bookstores. (Yes, I’m optimistic that bookstores will still exist in 10 years.) That is the ultimate goal, I guess, and I want to take steps toward that goal, not away from it.

Let me take a minute and explain that goal. My true goal is to be a writer. I’ve done that already, I’ve written a novel, several short stories, and I’m almost finished with a second novel. But my drive to be a writer consists of two parts. First and foremost, I want to tell stories. I have more ideas than I have time to write, and I want to write these ideas down, get them out of my head–though this mostly seems to just make room for new ones. But I also want my stories to be read. That’s the purpose of a story, to entertain others. I read books to be entertained, and I would love for my books to be able to do the same thing. That is why I want to be published. (I’m not under any delusions that I’ll get rich from it. Not in the slightest.)

So what am I going to do? I could just keep writing novels until I feel they’re good enough (My second one is much better than my first, IMHO, and I hope this trend will continue.), and hope to get in that way. It’s one of the traditional ways, and lots of people have done it. I have considered it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

But I also enjoy writing short stories, and reading some of them as well, at least of types that fit my tastes. I don’t want to write only novels. Some parts of writing, some aspects of the craft, can be practiced in short stories, and I intend to keep writing these when I feel like it. In addition, some ideas are better suited to short stories, and wouldn’t work as complete novels, and sometimes, it’s refreshing to start and finish something in a day or a week, instead of it being a months-long process.

So on my path to submitting novels and writing more of them (I’m not going to stop doing that. Period.), I’m aiming to submit and have published some short stories. I don’t have any right now that I feel are ready to submit (I really like the one I wrote for the game, but it’s for the game, not submission. There’s too much back-story and interconnectedness for that to work, even if I wanted to.). Thus, my immediate goal is to write some more short stories. Today is August 17. My goal is to have 1 done by the end of this month and being read by some writer friends for feedback. I want to have that one revised and sent off somewhere to be rejected by the end of September, and I want to have another one written by then. I want to do at least one new one per month until the end of this year (I might take November off if I decide to do NaNoWriMo), and have at least one rejection letter that I can print out and hang on my wall before the end of the year.

By the end of next year, I hope to have several short stories to shop around, and be able to collect a nice stack of rejections. My goal, my big goal for next year, is to get one acceptance, though that will probably be a low-paying, easy market. I’ll take what I can get, though I’ll always strive for the best.

I also want to write at least one more novel this year. I have three months, and I’m going strong with 1000 words per day. I can do another 50-60k on a single project, though I’ll be happy as well being 60k into a novel and it not being done, due to the fact that it ends up being longer. This is some-what vague right now, as I don’t know what I want to write next–I’m going to do brainstorming soon.

Next year, I hope to be able to revise the novel I’m working on now, once I have some distance from it, and write at least two more rough drafts, as well as several more short stories.

From there, it gets vague. Keep writing, keep submitting short stories. Hopefully in a few years, I’ll feel confident enough to start shopping a novel around, with the eventual goal of selling one. But that’s all vague.

For the rest of this year, here’s my checklist. I’ll keep you updated as I go through and hopefully hit these markers.

Finish the July novel by Wednesday, August 28, 2013.

Brainstorm and write a short story, rough draft, by September 1, 2013.

Brainstorm and write a short story, rough draft, by October 1, 2013.

Revise and etc. the short story from August by October 1, 2013.

Submit the August story to a market by October 2, 2013.

Get a rejection letter by the end of the year.

Brainstorm and write a short story, rough draft, by November 1, 2013.

Revise the September story by November 1, 2013.

Submit the September story by November 2, 2013.

Maybe brainstorm and write a short story, rough draft, by December 1, 2013.

Revise the October and November stories by the end of the year.

Write at least one more short story for the game project, and whatever else needs to be done.

Write at least 60k words on another novel by the end of the year.

All in all, this would leave me with 4 revised short stories, 1 unrevised, and hopefully at least one rejection letter under my belt, as well as 2 completed novel rough drafts and a good chunk of a third. I think that’s a pretty good goal-set for my first year as a serious writer, while going full time to college. Don’t you? Looking at it all, I’m kind of scared. But if I can get all that done, I’ll be very proud of myself, and well on my way to becoming a published author. I’ll also have established that I can set goals that will stretch me, and I can make myself meet them. I want to continue being able to stretch myself and to grow.

Camp NaNoWriMo Is Over!

Yep. July has come and gone. It’s now August.

I won Camp NaNoWriMo, meaning that I made it to over 50,000 words on a new novel project in the month of July alone. I wrote 50,918, actually. The story is not done, and I’m going to continue to write on the same novel until it is, but I finished the month victorious.

It’s an amazing feeling, and I am so glad that I did it. It has been quite an experience. I might even do it again, some day, though I don’t know when. November won’t be a good time for me, because I will have classes. Maybe next summer, depending on my class schedule.

Here’s a few more things to note, things that I think everyone who wants to try to do a NaNoWriMo should know.

First: Set a realistic goal. I set mine at the standard 50,000. One of my cabin-mates set his at 70,000. We both reached our goals. If I had tried to reach his goal, I would have fallen behind early in the month and never caught up. I would not have even made 50,000, I don’t think. If you don’t think you can make 50,000, you can, at least during the camp months (I don’t know if you can in November or not.), set your own goal lower than that. Set it where you think you can reach it, but still high enough to make you stretch and reach. 50,000 is more than I’ve ever done in a single month before, but now I know that I can do it, and that’s an amazing feeling. There’s no shame in making 30,000 or less, though, if that’s all your schedule allows, and it’s a stretch for you.

Second: Tell people that you’re doing it. This does two things. First, it gives you supporters, those who will cheer you on all month long. If they’re other writers, that can be even better, as they understand what you’re going through, and you can watch them along the way as well. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but trust me, being able to talk about it helps. A lot. It also gives you accountability. These same people who are encouraging you will ask you if you have met your word-count, and you will want to be able to say yes. Knowing that someone will be doing this is a great way to motivate yourself. I’ve gotten half my words done for tonight. Can I go to bed yet? Oh, my co-worker Fred will ask me in the morning how my writing is going, and I want to tell him I’m on track… I’ll keep writing.

Third: Write before the Camp. This breaks down into two types of writing. The first is designing the novel. Yes, you are not supposed to start actually writing it before the month starts. I’m talking about outlining and sketching. Have a general idea of where your novel is going, and who your characters are before you start, at least. If you’re a heavier outliner than that in general, outline more heavily. But I found that because I had an ending to work towards, and I knew who my characters were, I could put them in a scene and know what needed to happen to move towards the ending in that scene, and see what happened with them. For the most part, I liked the result. Also, you should have a writing habit before the month starts. If you don’t write at all, it’s going to be quite a shock when you jump in and have to start writing large numbers of words every day. I’ve been on the Magic Spreadsheet since January, and I’ve only missed a single day. I don’t think that I could have made it through the month if I had not already been in the habit of writing every day–I just had to increase my word-count for the days this month.

Fourth: Have a tool that allows you to focus on the writing. This month, I downloaded the trial version of Scrivener. And I love it. It’s not the only program, or maybe even the best one out there, but it allowed me to do everything I wanted, which mainly meant keeping track of the world-building and character notes that I came up with as I went along, and having my various stages of outlining visible along the side as I wrote, and it also kept my word-count goals right alongside where I was writing, which was motivational. Have your program for writing, and love it. If you don’t love it, find one that you do love. It keeps the distractions to a minimum when you don’t have to argue with your program, and leaves you more time and energy for what’s important: the writing.

The advice above is in addition to all of the regular advice, the main piece of which is that you should not edit as you go. This will kill your momentum and your confidence. Just keep  writing.

My cabin-mate and friend, the amazing Ellie, wrote a post half-way through the month called “5 Things not to do During NaNoWriMo“. It’s got some really good advice, and you should check it out. Another one of my cabin-mates and friends, Derek, also wrote a post, “Camp NaNoWriMo“, which has his story. If he can make it through the month with all that he’s been doing, so can you. He also have some advice on how to make it through the month, which is worth reading.

I had fun this month, and I know I’m not the only one. I might not be doing this again in November, but I will be at some point in the future. If you’ve never done it before, I strongly encourage you to join in. It’s an amazing experience, and I’ve learned so much.