July/August Update - Novel Revisions w/ the Forest App

As summer draws to a close and meetings for the school year are starting to pop up, I'm trying to make the most of the remaining few weeks before I have to begin lesson planning in earnest and brainstorming schedules with my student advisees. I've tried many strategies for productivity and increased focus over the years with varying levels of success. Unlike my wife, I know I often can't write in public; I need to be cloistered away in our home office with the door cracked open just enough to allow our cat to enter (her litter box is in this room). I can't listen to music unless it's something like ambient electronica (i.e. The Album Leaf or Mogwai) but even that's a distraction depending on a project or where I am in a project. That said, I can't do without white noise or brown noise-ocean surf, rain drops, unintelligible restaurant chatter, sounds of highway traffic, and my favorite go to: the engine rumble of the U.S.S. Enterprise D (from Star Trek: The Next Generation). In the summers, I like to have a fan blowing on me. I like to have toys at an arms reach that I can fidget with while I work through a character or plot problem in my mind.

But all of the above never really solved the fact that I often took a long time "preparing" to write and if you have a pulse in the 21st century you know that means lots of YouTube videos that may or may not be relevant to a book project no matter how cute baby sloths and red pandas are. Disconnecting entirely from the net and certainly deactivating social media is often infeasible for most people (work, log in access to other sites tied to social media, the need to interact with the lit community etc.). Apps that block me out of certain websites if not all websites for certain hours, effectively turning my computer into a fancy typewriter, have been helpful. But there still remained this issue of using my time wisely. Ass in seat is harder than you think and anyone who says otherwise is a damn liar. 

Historically, on a really good day I wrote maybe 2,000 decent words and this would take me the better part of a day due to convincing myself I was hard at work when I really was watching acoustic guitar covers of 90s television show intros (BTW. search for "Twins playing 90210 on one guitar" on YouTube). And then came the Pomodoro method and the Forest App. The Pomodoro method embraces short, timed work sessions or "Pomodoros" (usually 25 minutes) followed by a brief few minute break. Rinse and repeat with the occasional longer 15 to 30 min break after every couple of hours. You might think that 25 minutes is too short, but consider that you can probably write about 200 - 500 words in that time depending on how much your internal editor is on. They might not be perfect words, but it's a healthy portion of a scene. These bite-sized increments allowed me to have a concrete goal while still allowing me a few minutes to break away from "active writing" to reflect on what I had just done before moving on to the next scene. The frequent breaks also helped me to reduce eye strain and fatigue and headaches, allowing me to have some real marathon writing sessions that didn't feel like marathon sessions. I would warn against using your few minute mini-breaks to go to the kitchen to snack, which I'm terrible about. I've decided to buy large lego sets or models that I can work on in 5 minute bursts between writing, allowing myself to use another part of my brain while also relaxing. The Lego Voltron set and Saturn V Apollo rocket are on my docket. 

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The Forest timer App uses many of the above principles but packages them in a fun and environmentally conscious way. Whenever you start a Pomodoro session, you grow a virtual tree and earn coins that can be used to purchase upgraded trees or, if you wish, all of your hard work can go toward the planting of a real tree somewhere in the world. If you take a break in the middle of a session or if you pick up your phone, your tree dies and it'll cost you to remove the stump in your virtual forest. Adjust your timer accordingly if you know your strengths/weaknesses. 

Okay, so writing productivity and saving the planet one tree at a time? Sign me up. I'm still pretty new to this technique and app, but thus far I've gone from an average of 0 to 2000 words a day (if that) to 4,000 - 6,000. Granted I'm a professor on summer break with no children, and I know I'll have to adjust my schedule once the semester starts. And I should say that fast drafting is not for everyone. In my case, I generally don't start writing until I know my characters VERY well and have a damn good idea about major scenes and the overall dramatic progression (all of this helps me cut through the time wasting bull). In any case, if you want to train your self to be more efficient with what little time you do have via the guilt of killing a virtual tree (and missing the opportunity to plant a real one) to help you reach your personal goals then I think this is both a fun and effective way to do it (at least it works for me). In two weeks or so I'll be done with my current round of novel revisions, and I look forward to contributing to greening the planet just a tiny bit more.