creativity

Trying the Don Roos Kitchen Timer system

This week I’m trying out a new system of setting and tracking writing goals. More of a philosophy, in a way.

I think it’s called the kitchen timer system, as espoused and/or created by Don Roos, which I learned about because my wife was reading Lauren Graham’s book, which lays it out, and she showed it to me.

The basic idea is that each day you set a time goal for the next day, and you spend that much time with only two things in front of you: your journal and your work-in-progress (hereinafter WIP).

Turn off your Wi-Fi, turn your phone face-down and ignore it, don’t watch or listen to anything except music without words, and start to write.

You have two options. You can either work on your WIP, or, whenever you want and without recrimination, you can write about anything at all in your journal. When you get bored of journaling, you can go back to your WIP. When you get stuck on your WIP, you can go back to your journal. You can even sit and stare at your journal and/or WIP without writing if you want, as long as you don’t switch to anything else.

If you put in the time goal you set for yourself, you win. Simple as that.

Even more canny, if you don’t hit your time goal–and this is critical–you just move on. Take it as a sign that your goal wasn’t very realistic and set a shorter one for tomorrow. DO NOT set an even bigger goal to “make up for it” tomorrow.

It’s kind of genius.

In my experience, it’s almost impossible to journal or freewrite for a very long time at all without getting down to the roots of whatever emotional/intellectual/creative issues have me stuck or preoccupied. It’s also very hard, having gotten down to said issues, to journal or freewrite about them for very long without some sort of useful resolution or reframe emerging. And once my issues are resolved, I generally find the WIP writing easy and fun, even addictive.

This system is also great because it defuses the psychological risk inherent in high-stakes and/or high-intensity creative writing goals, especially those framed in functionally less actionable terms. If my goal is to write 1,000 words on my WIP, I’ll finish that in somewhere between half an hour and never, especially because the implicit goal is to write 1,000 good words, preferably 1,000 brilliant words.

Usually, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll sit and think harder. More realistically, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll play a dumb game on my phone or turn on a sitcom. Or both. (I’m a terrible person.) This method invites me, when I can’t find brilliant words, to just write whatever words, which I can always do.

That keeps me writing, trends toward resolution (and, eventually, a return to brilliance), and gives me a controllable win. All I have to do is stay there and not open any other things until my time’s up. Unlike being brilliant, that’s something I can simply decide to do, and my brain gets a lot more excited when I make the win about a concrete decision, not an unpredictable flash of insight (much less a thousand of them in a row).

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Birthday Reflections + 6 Months as a Self-Published Author

I turned 32 on Friday and, as most things do, it got me thinking.

  1. I’m just a few years away from being twice as old as all the college freshmen.
  2. I’ve been married for over 20% of my life. (FTW! Best. Wife. Ever.)
  3. I’m a dad. Still not used to thinking of myself that way. The other day in church our pastor asked all the parents to raise their hands and it took me a second to realize I was a parent.
  4. It’s been six months since I self-published my first book. This one totally blew my mind. Since then my books have hit #1 Free in Humor and Top 10 Paid in Fairy Tales and we launched PintsAndProse.com and published 3 episodes of Hubris Towers and I’m on the verge of a brilliant new adventure with Clickworks Press. Wow. Six months. What can we do in five years?
  5. It seems I am now at a point in life where an hour and a half to hang out at Starbucks and write is an annual celebratory treat. (Cf. #3)
  6. We have another baby on the way! I’m really excited to meet her, and also worried about what this will mean for my capacity to build my writing career as I continue my regular career.
  7. I think I’m officially past the age threshold for most things being impressive due to the age at which I did them. Unless it’s stuff like becoming President, which I don’t really want to do.
  8. I really feel like I’m reaching the beginning of my prime. I’ve been hitting a new stride in life: more confident, making visible progress toward long-held goals, better established than I ever deserved. God has blessed me so richly that it’s honestly taking a lot of thought and strategizing just to figure out how to make the most of what I’ve been given.
  9. That said, I’m clearly at the front end of things. I don’t know what things will look like in 10 years, but it’s plausible to think that by then I’ll be writing full time and doing a lot to help others get more better stories into the world. I can’t wait to see it unfold.

All in all, I’m enjoying growing up. Yes, there are a lot of trade-offs. Yes, it’s way harder than it used to be to get stuff done. But I also find myself stepping up to the challenge. And my daughter is one of the most incredible people I know, and my day job has taken a real turn for the better, and my wife is a fountain of ever-flowing blessing and beauty, and my friends are delightful and challenging and brave and supportive, and I can drink coffee and tea and whiskey and eat at restaurants sometimes and support incredible groups like Kiva and Feed My Starving Children.

And I can have as many cookies as I want.

PS – An amazing, free, easy birthday present is reviews on my stories, especially Hubris Towers Episodes Two and Three. Reviews are a quick, permanent way to majorly increase my visibility on Amazon and other platforms. Thanks!

Sports as Myth, Catholicism on Homophobia, and a Very Sleepy Puppy

Hi friends!

Just a quick note to let you know I’ve got an article featured at Pints & Prose this week. You should check it out!

Here’s the link:

Everyone is Tired All the Time: A Challenge from Three Angles – We can’t all manage annoyingly chipper, but let’s at least get to tired-but-happy.

While you’re there, I also recommend the following:

If Christianity and/or LGBT issues matter to you: An Appendix to Raw Tact: A Catholic Perspective on Homophobia

If you like football, or don’t get why people like football: From Free Agency to the Draft: Football’s Season of Hope

If you’re a writer/artist: Calling All Creators

If you’re a gamer: Nat One Productions

It’s so cool to get to work with the guys at P&P. I’ve rarely met a group that’s simultaneously so brilliant in really varied and interesting ways, incredibly driven, and yet totally laid-back, unpretentious, and genuinely fun to hang out with. Really downright silly at times. I wish you could all come spend an evening with us and a good bottle of whiskey.

Anyone else have a great support network in your writing, thinking, or life in general? Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear about it.

Cheers!

—Ben

So Many Cool Things! Free Book, New Site, Call for Submissions, Series Launch

Hi friends!

Sorry to go incommunicado on you. May kind of snuck up and pounced. Also I have so many cool things going on that I didn’t even know where to start, so apparently I didn’t, but that’s no way to live. So here’s a quick rundown for now.

  • The Stone and the Song is free this weekend! If you like fairy tales, lyrical writing, living(ish) statues, or stories where the heroine does as much rescuing as the hero, now’s your chance to snap it up. (Click here to get it on Amazon.)
    • Super-cool sidenote: Last weekend was the first free promo I’ve ever done. The Stone and the Song hit #1 Free in Fairy Tales within 24 hours, and stayed there until the end of the promo! This time around it’s been hovering around the Top 10 so far, even without much promotion. Also got my first reviews from strangers, I’m pretty sure, including its 10th 5-star review!
  • Pints & Prose is live! I’m one of the founding editors and art director for Pints & Prose, a Baltimore-based creative laboratory. We’ve hosted local gatherings for years, and we officially launched our online presence earlier this month. It’s a place for writers, thinkers, and creators to create great work, enjoy it together, and share it with the world. I haven’t said anything about it because I didn’t want to be premature, but it’s been super-hard to stay quiet on this one. But now we’re live, and there are already some fantastic articles up, including a piece about why sports needs villains and a couple perspectives on the recent Baltimore riots. Check it out at pintsandprose.com!
    Ben Ponders the Pocket Edition

    The pocket edition is in my actual pocket!

    • Are you creative? We’re also looking for guest contributors, so if you’ve got great creative work to share with the world, submit it here and we’ll take a look.
  • Bill and I launched our new series, Hubris Towers! I feel like I haven’t shut up about this one, so I won’t go into it at length. Short version: I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve written lately. Early reviews seem to agree. Also the pocket edition is so cool! Learn more here or buy it on NookKobo, or Amazon (US Int’l).
    • Protip: Buy the pocket edition on Amazon and you get the Kindle edition free!

Brilliant!

I’m so grateful, as ever, to have you all along for the ride. Big things are happening, people. Leave a comment and let me know how you’re doing. I miss you.

Cheers!

—Ben

Jump-Start Your Writing With Ridiculously Easy Goals

I’m not a firm believer in writer’s block, but I have my tough writing days just like anyone else. Today’s one of them. Or rather, it’s becoming one because I’m forcing myself to work on Frobisher instead of Hubris Towers. Writing Hubris Towers is currently about like eating kettle corn. Once I’ve written a few paragraphs, I can’t help but write a few more. Frobisher, on the other hand, is getting so long and clever and funny and deep that it’s starting to feel like there’s no way I can bring it to a satisfactory fulfillment, and now I’m getting toward the end where I really need to figure out the extra-clever solutions to the very interesting problems I’ve been raising.

And the thing is, if I were to just sit down and write some stuff, it would probably be, on average, just as good as all the other stuff I’ve written, which is currently intimidating the hell out of me. Worst case scenario, it wouldn’t be, and I could delete it and write some more. It’s not like I’m facing bears or razor guns or something.

razor-gun by wiledog via DeviantArt

A razor gun, apparently.

But I managed to get myself into a mindset that’s more focused, I guess, on trying to figure it all out in advance rather than just writing it and giving myself more raw word count to shape into something exceptional. I’m finding every excuse and non-essential task I can find to avoid sitting down and actually writing.

It doesn’t help that my monthly target is looming, with 7,500 words left to write in the next few days (when I usually shoot for 5,000 per week).

I got out of it by making my goal easier. 7,500 more this month is too much to think about. Let’s start by adding 1,000 today. No, still intimidating. Maybe 500. Better, but that’s like half an hour unless I hit a groove, which isn’t looking likely. 250? Not at all scary, but what would I write? That’s still nearly a page and the whole point is I’m not sure what’s next

Bear in mind, of course, that if I were to just look at the page I’d probably manage to figure out what’s next. But so far I’m just arguing with myself while working on other things.

So I set a goal of 50 words. Seriously. That’s three minutes, one if I’m fast, five if I’m being ridiculous.

And it worked! Or at least it’s working. I’ve gotten moving on the writing, and as usual once I get out of my head and start spilling story it gets the flow going and soon I don’t want to stop.

There are a few reasons this works so well:

  • It cuts out the cost of trying – I can attempt 50 words any time I have a couple minutes to spare
  • It also cuts the cost of failing – who cares if I have to delete 50 words?
  • It gets my logistics in line – once I’ve done my 50 words, I have my tools in place and my Scrivener project open and ready for more
  • It forces me to look at what I’ve got so far, which gets me thinking about the story again
  • It provides an easy win. Once I’ve got 50 words (which is almost immediately), I can go for another 50. Then another. Then why not 100 this time? And by then I’ve finished 250 and that’s a quarter of a day’s production. A few more of those and I’m breaking actual targets.

So that’s what I’m dealing with today. Really am excited to see what I come up with for Frobisher now that the story’s open and growing again, though. In other news, I’m nearing completion on the paperback layout for The Stone and the Song. So much exciting in so little time! Stay tuned.

Cheers!

—Ben

What’s More Important: Progress or Discipline?

What do you do when your passion for one worthwhile goal edges out your progress on another worthwhile goal?

My goals for March include writing a whole lot of Frobisher and a tiny sample of Hubris Towers.

But Hubris Towers has proven incredibly fun to write, with the result that so far this month I’ve written a whole lot of Hubris Towers and a modest amount of Frobisher. More precisely, I’ve hit a third of my minimum goal for Frobisher, and maybe ten times my stretch goal for Hubris Towers.

That raises an interesting question: Is it more valuable to make fast progress or to stick with the plan?

My guess is most people would vote for fast progress, assuming it’s good-quality progress on a worthwhile task. And there’s a good argument to be made for that. If each of several tasks (say, work on 3 different drafts) will be contributing to your overall goals (say, publishing lots of books), then it stands to reason that the more quantity you can achieve, the sooner you’ll reach your overall goals. If you can write 100 pages of one book instead of 20 of the other, why not go for the easy win, right?

But if you’re dealing with a well-designed long-term strategy I’m going to argue for sticking with the plan. That’s right. Given my March plans, I’d ultimately rather hit 12,000+ words on Frobisher and 500 words on Hubris Towers than 4,000 words on Frobisher and 12,000+ on Hubris Towers, even though it’s adding less to my total word count, and even though it seriously could mean not reaching some of my publishing and financial goals as quickly.

Because in the long term, patterns matter.

Right now any time I choose to write the quick, easy, fun story over the tricky, deep (but fun) story, I’m training myself to do the work that appeals to me in the moment, not the work that is strategically valuable. And I’m training myself to act like the goals and deadlines I set for myself don’t matter.

Every writing project—really any important project you love—is going to hit a point where it gets tricky, where the ideas aren’t flowing as smoothly or the next steps aren’t as much fun as they used to be. A new project or a new system or a quick win can feel like a delightful escape, like you’re finally making real progress again and your work is fun and meaningful.

But every new project will, at some point, start feeling tricky and unglamorous too, and the real key to success lies in that decision point: push through and finish, or start developing the next fun, interesting idea?

In the end I’d rather know that I can keep the promises that I set and that no matter how tricky or complicated or unglamorous a goal feels in the moment, I can reliably push through and deliver anyway.

In the end, I’d rather keep finishing important projects than keep reaching the unglamorous halfway point of fun new ideas.

Origami Lunchbox: Butt-Kicking Thoughts on Life, Fear, and Creative Work

Hey everyone! It’s been a crazy day, so this will be quick. My friend, sounding board, and unofficial publicist Joe recently launched a very stylish site that I think you’ll enjoy. It’s called Origami Lunchbox and it’s—well, think inspiration the way it should be. Not fluffy thoughts about imagining success and feeling good, but honest, no-nonsense, and surprisingly vulnerable advice and reflections to get you pointed in the right direction again. If you’re an idea person or do creative work, check it out.

OrigamiLunchbox

Sometimes you need a kick in the butt, sometimes you just need a reminder that others are in this with you. Origami Lunchbox will give you both.

Cheers!

—Ben