Missing Your Appointment To Write

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Honey!”

“I’m working, what is it?”

“The doctor just called with the scan results.”

Oh hell, some good news would be a nice change of pace…

The Comptroller

As some of you may have noticed, I have been absent for the last several months. It was not my intention nor was it my desire to miss my monthly deadlines. However, sometimes we find life must get in the way, and we must miss our Appointment to Write. This was just such a case.

I have avoided writing about my personal life other than the humorous tongue-in-cheek excerpts I have at the beginning of each blog. The reason is I like to keep my private life private. But alas, sometimes our personal world interferes with our professional one, and we must mix the two, or speak about it to help with the situation.

Because of this, I have chosen to dedicate this blog to waxing philosophical on when it is okay to miss your Appointment to Write. This will be the only one, I hope, and I will return to helping you pursue your publishing dreams next month. But for now, I want to discuss that balancing act we all practice with our personal and professional lives.

First, my Appointment to Write is typically on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and occasionally on Sunday. That is a great deal of time devoted to writing, but writing is something I am very devoted to. Thankfully, I have a day job that allows this time as well as a family that is very understanding.

Up until eighteen months ago, this was a very workable schedule, albeit demanding when balancing my other job and the typical family activities. But eighteen months ago, my wife was diagnosed with a squamous cell carcinoma on her tongue, leading to a battle for her life over the subsequent months. Needless to say, this upset the balanced schedule.

Few of us are lucky enough to find our soul-mates, and after almost twenty years, the thought of losing her is nearly unbearable. Besides the minutiae related to battling the disease with doctor appointments, scans, surgeries, etc., there is a deep emotional toll that affects you every single day. It is enough to drown you in self pity.

All right, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that writing, being such a great catharsis, would surely help excise the demons hounding my family, and you would be right. But at some point, you have to give something up because the physical and emotional demands are simply too great over such a long period of time.

To that end, I gave up writing for a time and spent my Appointment to Write doing family things. Most of the time, it was watching my children while my mother in law and wife went to so many appointments for tests and treatments. To date, she has undergone two surgeries, two rounds of radiation, and one and a half rounds of chemo therapy. Throughout, she has kept such a positive attitude, that if the treatments don’t cure her, it won’t be for her lack of willpower.

We all strive to balance our personal and professional lives. I have battled that all my working years. In the Army, it was being ready for duty after a night chasing girls. In college, it was balancing that big project or test with a desire to socialize with friends. In high-tech, it was balancing the many hours coding or traveling with the need to help around the house and spend time with my spouse. Now, it is family versus my passion for writing.

But family trumps all. If you were told you had little time remaining, you probably would not spend those precious hours alone in front of a computer. You would want to get out, spend time with family and friends, travel and see places. You would want to have some fun, not that writing isn’t.

The problem is writing is a solitary activity. In many ways, it is the ultimate selfishness–an escape from reality as you dive into fictional worlds with fictional people. And this is a great escape, a necessary escape, a healthy escape. But not at the cost of your real family and friends.

When a crisis such as mine arises in your life, give yourself the permission to take a break. Use it as a chance to reconnect with the important people in your life. The real people! It will reinvigorate you and may bring forth fresh ideas for future writing projects. Or in my case, it might just confuse you as to what to write next. I am waffling over three different novels at the moment but will figure it out soon.

Now, I am not saying to abandon your Appointment to Write every time a crisis arises, but sometimes the crises are such that you must step aside and put family first, or you first. Never let your health or that of your family come after your passions. That is a sure path to destruction, and then where would your writing be?

On this note, let me impart a little advice. You can do it all, but you must be committed and understanding of those around you. Smell the roses, help your daughter learn to read, take the dog for a walk, spend romantic hours with your significant other. These are the memories that will mean the most to you in your old age, not the dusty books lining your shelves.

I hope to live a long and happy life, but I need my partner to be there with me. Without her, the words will turn bitter and sharp, my self pity and self loathing coming through my stories. Wait, I already have that! Anyway, I want to make sure whatever time I have left with my wife is spent in meaningful, fun ways. To that end, my passion for writing will always take a back seat to the love of my family.

Never do anything to the exclusion of everything else. you don’t have to work harder, only smarter, and I have demonstrable ways to help you in this blog and my book. Everything in moderation, and you will find the balance you seek. I will never give up my passion, but I am willing to set it aside when family needs me.

I want to leave you with something positive, so I’ll update you on my wife’s progress. Her most recent CAT scan showed a marked improvement of the lesions in her lungs. This means they will continue the chemo before considering other alternatives to remove the last of the cancer from her body. She is not out of the woods, but for the first time in eighteen months, there is reason to hope.

Continue to make your appointments as long as it isn’t at the cost of your family life. I am back on track, for now, but could experience another setback, keeping me from pursuing my passion regularly. I’ll cross my fingers, knock on wood, and sacrifice a goat to the god’s of misfortune who have been dogging our heels mercilessly. I pray you and your family will continue in good health. If not, take a break and get healthy!

I will post another blog next month with details on how I edit my manuscripts as I go along and after I have finished writing. Stay tuned for this important, albeit less satisfying part of your writing experience. A good story goes a long way, but a well written good story is priceless!

“Okay, honey, I think this news calls for a cautiously optimistic celebration. How about a rootbeer float?”

Spring Into Action

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Daddy!”

Hmm, three going on twenty-three.

“Yes, sweetie?”

“We want to play in snow!”

Snow, in March? Rocky Mountain springtime…

Tori the Terrible

On Monday I played golf in near short’s weather, but yesterday I was shoveling out of 9″ of snow–a 3′ drift behind my car! I love the Rocky Mountains, but the seasons are screwed up at 7000 feet above sea level. We have warm, spring-like weather in the Winter and snow in the Spring. Oh well, as long as they can clear the snow off the greens by tomorrow, I guess I can live with it.

Here I sit, one year later, about to publish my thirteenth blog in this series, and I wonder where we have been and where we are going. By the way, thirteen is lucky for me, it is always the fastest isle in the grocery store. But I digress. I must admit, I have given my readers a taste of the organizational skills they need to succeed in their writing, but what about the writing itself?

A grand question that must be addressed. In fact, I plan to dedicate most of this year to addressing that question by imparting to you my experiences with writing novels and things each writer should be wary of. Some of my blogs will be organizational in nature, while others will discuss mechanical aspects of writing itself.

Now, I am no writing expert like you might find at your local college or university, but I can offer practical advice based on my own experiences writing and publishing three novels, one self-help book, two blogs, and about to publish my fourth novel. Also, while I am tooting my own horn, I was an honors English student in high school, if that counts for anything. Oh, and I have written millions of words of technical documentation as a software engineer for twelve years.

All right, all right, enough self adulation, let’s spring into action! As I said, I am not an expert on the subject of writing, but I do have a bit of an expertise on the art of writing. With that small bit of expertise, I will attempt to help you achieve your own artistic dreams of writing. After all, isn’t that why you went into writing? A passion? A need to express yourself in the written form? A deep desire to tell the world the stories that have built up in you over the years? If not, give up now.

Okay, I am all about product, so let’s get you springing into action with something tangible you can produce during your next Appointment to Write. What, you haven’t been keeping your appointments? Shame on you! If writing really is important to your life, then you will keep that appointment! Don’t feel too bad, I have missed a few, too.

But now, let’s get back to it, and start producing that great novel simmering inside you. I find that before I begin writing, I like to have my template created within which I will write my story. There is something inspiring about having this created, tangible, and near publishing quality. What you ask, near publishing quality?

Yeah, you heard me write, I mean right! Why start with something crude and unappealing except maybe to some writing teacher who needs double spaces to mark up all the grammatical errors? Look, I am writing a novel, and I want it to look like one from the start.

Fine, I hear some of you, you’re hung up on the old standard 8.5″x11″, 1″ margins, double spaced format, the bellwether for so many years. But please, do away with ye ol’ typewriter you got for college and join the 21st century of writing. It’s all digital now, and we can format anyway we want, whenever we want, and produce whatever anyone wants.

In other words, you can create a novel, printout the ol’ standard for your writing teacher, or post it in the blog of your writing group. What, you don’t have a writing group or a writing group blog? Sorry, that’s another post you’ll have to wait to read. For me, I like producing a novel, and I want it to look like a novel.

Okay, nuts and bolts. To create your novel template in Microsoft Word, you will need to start with a fresh new document. Save the document using the following naming convention: BookTitleDRAFT-1.doc. Great, as you progress (after each chapter written), you will save-as the document, increasing the draft number by one each time. This is the poor man’s way to file versioning, but hey, it works.

Now that you have created the file and saved it to your writing folder, we must set up the global book format before we address each section and paragraph. In Word, select the Page Setup dialog. I am purposely avoiding the specific menu keystrokes to access this as many people will be using different versions of Word. If you are using another editing program, consult their documentation to find out where you access the page setup options. When you have it in Word, you see the following dialog:

Microsoft Word Page Setup Dialog

Now, we will go through this tab by tab and setup your novel properly. By-the-by, this is for a 6″x9″ novel, but the same would work for any other format with proper tweaking. On the Margins tab, first set the Multiple Pages field to Mirror Margins. This sets the document up into a book format where opposite pages are mirrored. Then, set the following field values:

  • Top: 0.6″
  • Bottom: 0.6″
  • Inside: 0.6″
  • Outside: 0.6″
  • Gutter: 0.25″

The gutter is for the binding area inside each page. If you don’t set that, the binding will obscure the text on the inside portion of each page, making for an unpleasant reading experience.

So far so good, let’s continue. Select the Paper tab. We want to change the Paper size to the finished product. Select Custom size and set the Width to 6″ and the Height to 9″. Superb, now select the Layout tab.

Keep Section start as New page as this affects the headers and footers. Okay, now select both check boxes for the Headers and Footers so that they are Different for Odd and Even pages and for the first page of each new section (chapter in our case). Now, set the distance between each header and footer to 0.3″ from the edge. This is good for both appearance and to keep it from being chopped off when the book is cut during printing.

Once you have set these values in the Page Setup dialog, click on OK to make the changes to the whole document. The advantage to me, besides the nicety of having an actual “book” in the making, is that I see what the finished product will look like, gauge approximately how many pages it will contain when published, and to provide a pleasant reading experience for my writing group. For a novel in this format, I shoot for 300-500 pages.

I don’t know about you, but the standard 8.5″x11″ double spaced is not a pleasant reading experience. If your writing group needs this space to annotate your grammatical errors, you shouldn’t be writing a novel anyway, you should be in a writing class at your local college or university! Learn the mechanics first, then apply them to the art.

If you have an existing document with which you have been working, you can still make these changes to it at any time. Since the changes affect the whole document, Word will simply reformat your writing to fit within these new parameters. Try it out, and I think you will appreciate this new way of working on a novel. I think it is inspirational and will always be a crowd pleaser in your writing group.

Next month, I will discuss how to complete this template by adding the up front pages (title, copyright, toc, etc) and even provide you an actual template you can use. I will also outline how to insert your chapters, set your headers and footers for odd and even pages, and format your paragraphs to give it that nice, finished look. So tune in to learn more about how to inspire you to spring into action and get your writing underway.

Now, where on earth is that sled? Didn’t I just swap it out for my golf clubs? Oh, brother!

Excel … lerate Your Writing

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Honey!”

Uh-oh, bet this won’t be sweet.

“Yes, dear?”

“It’s minus one and Kahlua won’t come in!”

Doesn’t she have a fur coat? Sigh…

Killer Kahlua

Minus one Fahrenheit, forty mile per hour winds, now I know why they call it God’s country, He’s the only one who could survive this! Oh well, I still love Colorado even through the blizzards, and an occasional snow day off from work definitely supports my writing. Now, having to get the dog in? Well, the jury is out on that one.

We are hot in the middle of the Holiday season, and the New Year is just around the corner. Why not make a resolution that you will thank yourself for until you die. I mean an actual resolution, not the usual weight loss, quit smoking, eat better type, but a resolution to get your writing off the ground and complete a project within 2010.

I realize it may sound like wishful thinking, but if you have created your task list using Excel from last time and placed all your Appointments to Write within it, then you have a real shot at finally completing that project you have thought about for years. Make it a resolution you plan to keep, and I’ll help you achieve your dreams.

No, I don’t mean your dream of winning American Idol, but your dream of being a novelist. After all, why should an honest housewife be the only one to get a movie contract about Vampires? Your ideas are just as good, but they won’t help you living inside your head. Let’s get them out and allow them to breath and be experienced by others. Are you with me? Good, let’s proceed.

Okay, you have your Excel spreadsheet open, and you are waiting to complete your first Appointment to Write. Congratulations, you have come a long way to completing your project. The spreadsheet is designed to both motivate, track history, and instruct your writing progress. The fields within the spreadsheet are designed to assist you.

Let’s go through each field individually and discuss how they change, if they change, during your progress. I have listed all the fields below for a quick reference, then we will address each one in detail after that:

  • Book
  • Area
  • Task
  • Status
  • Target
  • Comments

I realize the Book field is really wishful thinking if you are just starting your writing career, but it serves more than a way to differentiate your writing projects. For newbies, this field is your ultimate goal, the Holy Grail, the whole enchilada. Every time you sit down to write, look at the book field and think about it being completed and in your hands. If people can lose two hundred pounds on a reality show, you can write a three hundred page novel.

Area is your way to differentiate your writing tasks. Although you would think it is only about writing, you would be wrong. There is more to publishing a novel, but getting it written is the logical first step. Here are my suggestions for values to use in this field:

  • Writing – duh.
  • Editing – really duh.
  • Publishing – a lot here, too.
  • Research – yeah, I got to do some of that, too.
  • Administrative – you’d be surprised how much.

Later on, I’ll explain more about marketing and sales, so don’t think this is all you’ll have to do. However, this is a good start for the beginning.

Not much to say about Task, you simply describe a goal that must be accomplished and is difficult to break down into smaller components. Eventually, you’ll come up with standardized phrases that describe tasks you do over and over again, but for now, don’t sweat it, just put something in there and get ‘er done!

Status is one of those that will change as you progress. At first, most of your tasks will be done sequentially, so this field doesn’t carry its weight during that time. Later on, it is important as you begin multi-tasking your writing. Hey, get a blog and you’ll know what I am talking about. I have two blogs and they keep me busy while I still write the novels. Yeah, I am a little crazy, but the writing keeps me sane.

All right, back to Status. There are a few values you should use in this field as follows:

  • Not Started – sadly, they all start out that way.
  • Inprogress – early on, there is usually only one of these.
  • Done – oh, what a feeling!

Start with these three and later you can add more. However, make sure they are in an alphabetic order so sorting on that field provides a useful view. More on that in the next blog, but notice that listing my tasks by this field in alphabetic order has the Done tasks at the top, to be scrolled out of view, followed by the Inprogress tasks, and lastly, the Not Started tasks.

This means that as I complete tasks, they scroll up, and what remains is viewable from top to bottom. This is useful as it gives you a way to check your remaining list without wading through the completed tasks. Now, as you start a task, please change the Status to Inprogress. Once you complete it, change the Status to Done. All tasks are obviously entered with a Status of Not Started at the outset.

Target is just as important as the Status field, maybe even more so. This is the due date, and we also sort on this field so that the most recent dates are at the top. As dates go past without completion, you must readjust the remaining tasks to take into account this slip in your schedule. I know it sounds hard and time consuming, but the reality is, you won’t get the dates quite right untill you have done this a few times.

Be patient, complete this administrative task diligently, and you will quickly get the feel for good dates based on your past experience. In the future, I will instruct you how to use formulas to update all the later dates based on a slip in an earlier date. But for now, simply change them by hand.

All right, this brings us to Comments. This field is useful for storing all sorts of information about your task. Web sites, email addresses, phone numbers, references, and excuses can all be listed within this field. I use it a lot for web resources for particular tasks. When you get into marketing your work, this will be critical. For the writing, not much is needed there unless you want to use it for outlining each chapter’s general storyline. Just a thought, I don’t actually do that.

So your task spreadsheet should be a dynamic document that you look at every time you sit down to write, update every time there are changes, and use to help track and motivate your progress. I start new ones at the beginning of every year, and it is so satisfying to scroll through the completed tasks to see what I have accomplished in that previous year.

But nothing is more exciting than completing the entire project. I am just about finished writing my fourth novel in my Onyalum Series and can’t wait to get it published next year. Still much to do, but the end is in sight and that really motivates me!

So, I’ll leave you this year with a heartfelt Happy Holidays, but with a request that you finally make that resolution to write your novel. Use the spreadsheet and your Appointment to Write to help you achieve this dream you have had for so long. Anyone can dream it, but only you can make it happen!

“Okay, dear, I’ll see if I can find her!”

All right, I need a parka, gloves, and a hat. Be very, very quiet. I’m hunting dog! Sigh …

Excel … lent Way To Manage Time

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Dah-dah!”

Another word for disaster?

“Yes, sweet pea?”

“Ehwika take crowns, I poopy, an Kahwua take banky …”

Don’t these things have an off switch? Sigh…

dscf12811

Tori the Terrible

With Halloween in the rear-view mirror and two more holidays facing us down, my waistline is increasing faster than my novel! I have always loved Halloweeen, and there is something wonderful about roast turkey at Thanksgiving, but why does it all have to be washed down with sweets? Don’t the Holiday Spirits know I have a sweet tooth?

Now that the white stuff is flying outside, I can finally teach you how to use Microsoft Excel to manage your writing. The spreadsheet, once only the domain of accountants and bookkeepers, is now a regular part of the American vernacular. We are, after all, a country driven by lists. Get the groceries, get the kids, record Fringe, feed the dog, etc, etc, etc.

So how do we manage it all? Well, I have chosen the spreadsheet to manage my time and tasks, and Microsoft Excel is one of the best on the market. It also comes with Microsoft Office, so most people already have it on their computer. If you are not familiar with it, then by all means, fire that puppy up and give it a test drive!

Now, once you are done kicking the tires and looking under the hood, you are ready to begin using this powerful product for your writing. First, download the template spreadsheet from my web site and save it to your Author folder, naming it something catchy like, MyDreams.xls or MyWriting.xls. If you’re boring, simply call it WritingTasks.xls.

If you are using Microsoft Office 2007, then it will want to create a file with the extension .xlsx. Feel free to permit the conversion, although I honestly haven’t seen any difference in the product from the previous version. Having worked at Microsoft for several years, I can assure you they release a new version of the tools every three years whether they have changed anything or not. Usually the changes are relatively superficial, like the new interface in 2007.

Start Microsoft Excel and load the template spreadsheet. Usually, you can simply double-click the file name in Windows Explorer and the program will automatically start and load the document. When done, you should see something like the following, depending on what version of Excel you are running.

Spreadsheet Template

Don’t be overwhelmed, but this spreadsheet contains more than just our task management. In fact, it is much more than that and a glass of milk! This spreadsheet encapsulates all the different processes I have discussed since starting this blog. On the bottom of the worksheet, yes, each page is called a worksheet, you will notice four (4) tabs titled:

  • Weekly Appointment
  • One Goal
  • Task Decomposition
  • Document

These are the basis for beginning your path to authordom. We will walk through each tab to prepare you for your journey to fulfilling your writing dreams.

Click on the tab titled Weekly Appointment and enter your appointment to write. Remember, if it is important enough to pursue, then it is important enough to have a weekly appointment, or two. I personally work three (3-4) days a week now, a couple hours each time. For me, Saturday and Sunday morning coupled with Tuesday and Thursday afternoon/evening seems to be the right fit. If I miss one or more of these appointments due to family obligations, I still have two more to target for that week. You pick based on your work habits and schedule. It should look like this when done.

Appointment to Write

Perhaps you noticed that when you entered the number of hours for each appointment, the total number of hours changed. This is because that cell has been filled with a formula that adds up all the hours entered above it. Go ahead, play around and see how it changes each time. However, be careful not to delete that cell’s content or this feature will be gone;(

Great, you have recorded your Weekly Appointment to Write which you will keep religiously like church or a doctor’s appointment. Now, let’s move on to the real meat of this exercise, the work you will perform during this appointment. If you haven’t done so already, click on the One Goal tab to record your overarching goal for your writing. This should be something tangible, like Write Novel X or Write Poem Y. When the goal is completed, you should be able to hold something in your hands that is the product of completing that goal.

One Goal

As you may note in my version of the spreadsheet above, I have put the title of my fourth book in my Onyalum Series, Galactic Checkmate. The title of the book or poem is a powerful reminder of what will be produced once you have completed this goal. In the Description field, simply write the following: Write and publish my first book. Simple, yes, but very powerful!

I remember my first book as though it were yesterday. I created my spreadsheet and entered these powerful yet simple words. At the time, it seemed an impossible dream to write and publish a book. But it was my dream and nothing would stop me from it. I started keeping my appointments and eighteen months later my goal was complete. Now, I am currently two-thirds done with my fifth book in total. Don’t give up!

Okay, you have your One Goal, now we must decompose that into chunks that you can spend your Weekly Appointment working on. This is called Task Decomposition, so click on that tab at the bottom to begin. Take each writing goal and begin to chop it into smaller pieces, assigning the number of your Appointments to Write as you believe it will be necessary to complete the task. Don’t get too granular, break down into things that can be accomplished with one or more appointments. After all, it makes more sense to Write chapter 1 as opposed to Write first sentence!

Task Decomposition

I have entered good samples of the kinds of tasks you can expect to perform to write and publish a novel. Obviously, there are more tasks to it than that, but this is a good working draft you can modify to fit your needs. Next, we have to actually enter the tasks that we will perform during our Weekly Appointment in the order that we will perform them (schedule). Click on the tab titled Document to begin.

This worksheet is the true meat of the process and will be used throughout your pursuit of your One Goal. Within this worksheet, you will record your accomplishments while maintaining a road map of where you are going and when. The column headers within this worksheet have been used by me for many years and provides a basic time management system that is powerful yet simple.

Let’s look at each of these column headers in detail to gain a better understanding of their purpose and use:

  • Book – Your goal.
  • Area – What aspect of your writing is the task?
  • Task – Duh.
  • Status – Not Started, Inprogress, Done.
  • Target – When will it be completed? Base on appointments.
  • Comments – Hey, add links if necessary (research, etc.).

Some people like to use a start and end date, but I find having only the end date (Target) is more than adequate when the tasks are ordered properly. Also, managing less fields is far easier, especially when you have to adjust it based on time slips or gains. Yes, you may actually get ahead of schedule!

Enter all your tasks from the Task Decomposition table, filling in the appropriate field value for each one. When done, you will have a nice list of what you will do during your Weekly Appointment to Write. Not only does it outline what must be done, but it informs you in what order it must be done in. Be sure to adjust the Target based on the end of the previous task and the duration you specified for that task. These should be tied to your Weekly Appointment, so if you require four (4) appointments, with two appointments per week, then the Target should reflect two weeks after the Target of the previous task.

Whew! That may seem like a lot of work, but the upfront cost will be far outweighed by the successful completion of your One Goal. Next month, I will walk you through the process of using this spreadsheet to manage your time effectively. However, if you don’t keep your Weekly Appointment to Write, you will never complete the tasks on this list. But, if you do keep your appointments, then the last Target date should be when you can expect to have accomplished your dream!

All right, another diaper change. God, I love parenthood😉

Tsk-tsk, So Many Tasks-tasks

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Daddy!”

Ah, let the parental games begin…

“Yes, sweetie?”

“Kahlua’s gots Tori’s sock!”

All around the mulberry bush, daddy chases the puppy! Sigh…

Empress Erika

Empress Erika

Considering a neighbor of my mother-in-law had to have a sock surgically removed from their Corgi, our family must be vigilant in what gets haphazardly thrown to the floor. For some reason, socks are the favorite house prey of the Corgi, perhaps reflecting a deep seated desire to stay overnight at the vets.

Reflecting back across my myriad blogs I have imparted to you, I realized that it is a bit overwhelming to see so many tools at your disposal to simply manage your time. But I hope you’ll take away from this a greater understanding of its importance. If we allow our time to be dictated randomly without purpose, we will fail in all our endeavors. Again, don’t be the “What could have happened if…” and be the one who can say, “I did this!”. Patience.

Indeed, patience is a rare commodity in today’s culture of now-now, me-me, but that is what makes it precious, too. Starting down the wrong path will eat away at the precious time you must manage. You likely have heard the saying that there is never enough time to do it right, but there is always enough time to do it over. Let’s do it right from the outset, and spend that extra time devoted to doing it over on your writing.

As promised last month, we will look at the task management capabilities built into Microsoft Outlook, an email, calendaring, and task management system sold as part of Microsoft Office. It has several advantages over calendaring in that it supports a single view (all) along with various filtered views you can sort. Add to this that it also supports reminders and you can see it is a pretty powerful tool for managing your writing tasks.

I already hear your thoughts through my dog’s barking: If this is so good, why do you keep saying Microsoft Excel is the one you use? Good question, but one that is complex to answer. First, I actually use Microsoft Outlook tasks to manage my tasks at school. Considering the vast number of things I manage as a teacher and the fact I use Outlook for my email, it seemed a natural fit. However, it lacks portability with the exception that I can synchronize it with my Crackberry. Without Outlook installed and setup with my personal store, I cannot access these tasks.

All right, enough talk about what it can and can’t do, let’s talk about how you can use it to manage your Appointment to Write. I prefer the following basic fields to help me manage my tasks:

    TaskName of the task
    DueWhen the task should be completed
    Status Is it in progress, stalled, what?
    Comment Any specifics you need for the task (ie. web address, contact, supplies, etc)

It is a basic list of attributes, but simplicity is sometimes the best approach. The question is, can Outlook support these basic attributes? The answer is yes. In earlier versions of Outlook, you had to modify the field structure of the underlying task object, but with Outlook 2007, the basic task object has pretty much everything you need. Considering a new version of Microsoft Office is just around the corner (2010), I highly recommend you update to Office 2007 now.

However, as mentioned last month, you first must take your decomposed list of writing tasks and sort them by any order you wish to perform them in, or that makes logical sense. Once you have completed this, you must assign how many appointments it will take to accomplish each task. This is the duration of the task. Now, you are ready to enter each task into the system.

Open Microsoft Outlook and select Tasks in the left-hand menu. It should be the last item in your menu at the bottom of the menu pane. Notice that when you click on it, you get something eerily familiar to the email and calendaring view. This is one of the Outlook 2007 changes where the views are more consistent between the different services provided.

Now, in the To-Do-List Pane, double click on the Type a new task. Dialog Box. This opens the Task Edit Dialog which is remarkably similar to the Calendar Edit Dialog we looked at last month.

Outlook Edit Task Dialog

Outlook Edit Task Dialog

In the Task Edit Dialog, enter the following information for the first task in your task list:

  • Subject: – Enter the name of your task
  • Start Date: – Enter the appointment to write date you will begin this task
  • End Date: – Enter the actual due date for completion (duration)
  • Status: – Leave as Not Started until the start date
  • Reminder: – Select checkbox if you want a reminder and set the date to your appointment to write

In the open dialog box at the bottom, you can enter any comments, notes, web addresses, or supplies you need to begin or work on the task. The following image illustrates an example task created for my Appointment to Write.

Sample Writing Task

Sample Writing Task

Save and close your new Outlook task. In the main Outlook task pane you should see your task listed in the To-Do List. Click on the task and the preview pane will display the details of your task. The following illustrates this.OutlookTaskPane

Enter all your tasks into the system one by one and you will soon be managing your tasks to pursue your publishing dreams. The beauty is you can sort the To-Do List on any field you wish, you can filter using the left-hand menu items, and you can track your progress as you work on each task. Now, when you keep your Appointment to Write, you can open Outlook tasks and see what is currently due and then work on it until you have completed it.

With so much power built into Outlook Tasks, it still begs the question why I don’t use it for my writing tasks. Well, first, I must admit portability is less important today than in the past, so I could use it on my home computer where I normally write. Second, it does require less skill than Excel, so my task management could become less burdensome. However, I think ultimately my problem with it is I simply have too many things to manage.

In fact, I actually maintain three separate task lists in Excel for Publishing, Marketing, and Sales. Although each on their own are manageable, having all three combined in Outlook might be overwhelming. If you are starting out and only have writing tasks to contend with, I highly recommend Outlook tasks to manage those tasks and your time. Between the power it provides and the reminders to keep you on track, you can’t beat it for free if you already purchased Microsoft Office.

However, as you pursue your publishing dreams over time, you will find you need something more powerful and flexible as the number of your tasks increases. Not only do I use a spreadsheet for managing tasks, but it manages my sales, my web site statistics, my contacts, my web addresses, my future goals, my ideas, etc.

Next month we will finally discuss how you can use the companion spreadsheet to manage your tasks. In the meantime, if you do not own Microsoft Excel, you might want to purchase it and install it.

“Okay, Erika, close all the doors so we can corner Kahlua!”

Improving Your Outlook On Time

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Dah-dah?”

Here we go again…

“Yes, sweet pea?”

“Ehwika, ma dem seto me!”

Where did I put my secret decoder ring? Sigh…

Tori the Terrible

Tori the Terrible

Language is such an amazing thing, especially when you watch someone develop it over a couple years. It is amazing how fast they acquire a working vocabulary. Of course, she understands five times more than she can say, but I rather think her understanding can be selective. If it is to her advantage, she understands it.

Based on the minimal hits on the blog last month, most of you are not really into ancient technology like a Dayplanner. Not to worry, the computer age has freed us from the bonds of dead trees, at least to some degree.

This month’s blog will explain how the Microsoft Outlook email program can be used to manage your time and your tasks. If you don’t have this program, then you might want to consider purchasing a copy of Microsoft Office. I realize that some of you are into the open source code movement, and hey, I have OpenOffice installed as well. However, as far as email, calendaring, and task management systems go, Microsoft Outlook is near the top, and OpenOffice doesn’t have an equivalent program.

Okay, you have Outlook installed, and you are ready to enter your hard created task list into it so you can start making the most of your appointment to write. Stop for one minute. We have two ways we can manage our list: Calendar and Tasks. Yes, Outlook comes with both features, and both provide a wonderful way to manage your time and/or tasks.

But which should you use? Calendaring? Tasks? Both? It can be a bit daunting to make the call because once you go down a path, you certainly don’t want to have to backtrack again. Let me explain the value of both, then you can decide which seems right for you.

First, with Outlook calendaring, you can use a real calendar with multiple views: daily, weekly, work week, monthly. Since Outlook is also an email program, you will likely have it running while you are working on your appointment to write, so having an open calendar to view can be wonderful and effective. The calendar feature is simply a Dayplanner on your computer. However, because it is on your computer, you can set reminders to popup and remind you of your current appointment to write, thus helping you keep that appointment, in theory at least.

With Outlook tasks, it more closely models the spreadsheet format we will discuss in the future. Using this feature allows you to enter more information than just the task name, and you can customize it to have different fields for the tasks you are managing. Once setup, you can display and sort the tasks based on the fields you have defined. It can be powerful, but still lacks portability.

In fact, using Outlook at all reduces your portability dramatically. Your writing tasks will be tied to the one computer on which you have Outlook installed. For many, this may not be a problem. For me, I need portability. You’ll have to decide which sounds best for your needs and then follow the directions below to get started using it.

This month, I will give you the instructions for using the calendar feature which somewhat mirror those for the Dayplanner I discussed last month. Take your decomposed list of writing tasks and sort them by order you wish, or that logically makes sense, then assign the number of appointments it will require to complete each task. When you are done, you should have a good list to begin entering into the calendar system.

In Outlook, select the calendar feature in the left-hand window pane. Once in calendar, at the top of the main pane, select the Week view and be sure it shows the full week, not just the work week. If you are like me, you’ll be working on weekends since you have a day job! Now, use the date control arrows to move to the week where you intend to start your first appointment to write. Find the day and time of that first appointment and then click on the start time to open an appointment dialog.

ApptRecurrenceSmall

In the appointment dialog, you will setup this appointment to write for every week until infinity. To do that, you must access the recurrence option dialog as indicated in the diagram to the left. Within this dialog, you want to set the Start and End times based on what you have etched out of your week to write. I find two hours a couple days a week to be perfect. Now, set the recurrence pattern to Weekly, and select the day or days that you will write on. If the different days have different times, then enter another recurring appointment separately for the other day. Set the Start date and make sure it will not end. Hit OK to save the recurrence.

Once you are back at the appointment dialog, you need to specify the Subject of your appointment. I suggest “Appointment to Write“, but you could make it more whimsical like “Dancing with my dreams!“. Either way, setting your appointment is a big step towards pursuing your writing dreams. Now, set the appointment to show Busy and set the Reminder to whatever time makes sense to you. For a weekend appointment, I suggest a reminder one day in advance so that you see it before the weekend gets there. Save and Close the dialog to enter it into your calendar.

Okay, you wondering how this manages your tasks, right? Hang in there, we are not done. You have established your weekly appointment(s) and will be reminded each week to keep that appointment. This is good, even for those who won’t manage their tasks using the calendar feature.

However, if you want to use your calendaring to manage your tasks, then you have more work to do. Starting at the top of your list, go to date of the first appointment you will work on that task. Click on the recurring appointment to write, but when asked whether to open this occurrence or the series, open that occurrence only. In the Comment/Description field at the bottom, enter in the task name and any information pertinent to that task. The image below shows an example I did for writing this blog.

Outlook Appointment Occurence With Task

Outlook Appointment Occurence With Task

Now, for every appointment required to complete that task, go to the next occurrences and enter the same information. Or, if you have multiple appointments per week, then you might work on one task on one day and another on the other day. You decide and enter the task into each particular occurrence. When you become an expert at it, you can setup recurring appointments for each task as opposed to single occurrences for each task. Either way, you will now have your tasks and your appointment set to remind you each week. Very effective and hard to ignore if you spend time on your computer.

Unfortunately, besides portability, the calendaring feature lacks an important aspect that you will find disconcerting over time. You cannot look at your complete list of tasks, and when your tasks do change, you must track down every appointment for that task and modify it appropriately. This is the same level of work you would have to do with a Dayplanner, thus why it is less effective.

Fortunately, with Outlook tasks, you can overcome this deficiency in calendaring and see and manage your tasks appropriately. However, they will not be attached to individual appointments, but that may not matter. We will look at using Microsoft Outlook Tasks in next month’s blog which will provide a good lead in for the oft lauded spreadsheet we are working our way towards. Patience if you are waiting:)

Play with Outlook calendaring anyway, regardless if you decide to manage your writing with something else. It is a powerful appointment program that can help you manage your time, if not your tasks.

“Okay, sweet pea, show me what Erika did!”

Plan for a Great Day

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Honey?”

Can’t a man just work?

“Yes, dear?”

“The puppy needs to go out!”

Just when we are almost done with diapers. Sigh…

Klever Kahlua

Klever Kahlua

With the passing of our last dog, we now find ourselves with a new puppy and a new set of problems. Welsh Corgis are wonderful dogs, but they are almost too clever for their own good. They work things out quickly and never forget. Grrrrrr…

Well, if you are not as sharp as a Corgi, fear not, the modern world will assist you with wonderful tools. You won’t have to remember everything and you won’t get bogged down by the minutia that will plague your writing career. Heck, we have tools that will do that for us!

Last time, I discussed all the possible tools I have used for managing time and tasks. This month, we will work through the nuts-and-bolts of each of these potential tools. I believe I left off last month by charging you with the task of analyzing each tool and seeing which might fit your needs best. If you have done that, you may need a little patience while I go through each one.

I wish to start with the simplest and work my way up to the more complex and powerful. Obviously, my preference of a spreadsheet makes me inclined to start with that; however, I am going to defer that till a future blog so I can spend an entire blog on each specific tool. Again, you can download the spreadsheet from my website and look it over before I discuss how to manage it. Or, you could just buy the book!

So, with this caveat in mind, I will begin with the good ol’ Dayplanner. Seems not too long ago when this was the gold standard of time management for business types. It was compact, functional, and easy to carry around. Of course, technology has degraded this tool to some degree (CrackBerry), but there are many who still love the idea of writing on real paper. Heck, I saw two at the coffee shop this week alone!

So how does one use this archane device for managing their writing tasks? You must remember back to your weekly appointment to begin. Then, the first step will be to enter this appointment into your Dayplanner calendar for every week you have slots. Sorry, nothing is for free. If your appointment is more than one day per week, then enter for each day you wish to write.

Okay, now is where you have to do some work on your task list generated during your task decomposition a couple months back. Step one, take your list and order it in a logical manner. After all, you wouldn’t start chapter two if chapter one was not complete, or would you? Assuming you apply some level of logic, you should have ordered your tasks based on a realistic sequence.

Next, we must calculate how many of our appointments each task might take. This is only an estimate, so don’t get too hung up on this step. If a task is something like write chapter one, then I would set aside at least two to three weeks worth of appointments to complete this. Yeah, that is all you will do for those appointments. If not, you will never get anything done, trust me!

Excellent, take that wonderful list of tasks you created, pick a starting date based on your ordered list, then append the tasks onto each weekly appointment from that start date until the specified number of appointments has been successfully met. Actually write the task name in the Dayplanner for that day and appointment. This will also provide a wonderful log of your efforts as you go along. Pencil is preferred, but if you don’t expect change, pen works, too.

Finally, add each additional task into your Dayplanner during your appointment until all tasks have been entered. If you work on your computer a lot, place the Dayplanner next to your keyboard and have it open to the current week. When you are starting your weekly appointment, look at the entry in your Dayplanner to see what you should be working on during that appointment. Don’t cheat, work on what the Dayplanner tells you! Voila, you are managing your time and your tasks.

If this seems a little time intensive, then you have discovered why this tool has degraded over the years. There is a good reason I go with a spreadsheet for task management, but this works, too. I find the most difficult thing about a Dayplanner is I lose that uber view of all my tasks. Also, I lose the flexibility of changing order and start dates, although if you use pencil, you can still have some flexibility.

The good ol’ Dayplanner is still a wonderful tool for managing your time. If you already use one for appointments in your day job, then adding your writing into it may be just the trick. If not, you may consider an electronic tool for the future. Maybe a combination of the two is also appropriate. If you are interested in the Dayplanner, I suggest FranklinCovey for your initial investment. They are one of the best and have so many solutions to meet your needs. I suggest the weekly planner inserts as opposed to the daily planners, but that is if all you are doing is managing your writing. If you use it for your job, the daily planners would be best.

I have given you a basic process for managing your appointment to write and the tasks you will perform during that appointment. The Dayplanner is a wonderful tool, but is overshadowed by so many electronic solutions available. However, if you prefer pencil and paper for your management needs, the Dayplanner can’t be beat. Only you can decide what will work best for you, but decide you must, else your writing day will never get planned or executed! Remember keep that appointment religiously.

Now, where did I put that leash?