My To-Do List(s)

As I said last time, I’ve decided to share how I keep my writing schedule on track. Daily logs are my way of looking back and making sure I’m keeping up, as well as just maintaining records of when I do various things (laundry, dentist appointments, etc.).

For looking forward, I use to-do lists. No big surprise. Over the years, I’ve used several to-do list apps, and I still use one called Errands for chores that recur on a regular basis, e.g. clipping my rabbit’s toenails. This is useful for monthly tasks and for things that take place even less often. I can just set up a schedule and have the software tell me when the time comes.

But for me, this kind of to-do list isn’t great for daily or weekly chores. I end up with so many entries popping up every day that important things get lost in the shuffle. Instead, I use a straightforward Google doc for my daily to-do lists. It contains daily lists covering the upcoming two weeks. I review the day’s chores every morning and every night, as well as multiple times during the day to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks.

I have three types of entries in each day’s list. At the top of the list are actual appointments: things I have to do at a specific time. For example, today’s list contains one such entry:

5:15PM—Help Teach Kung Fu

I’m expected to be at Waterloo Kung Fu Academy ready to teach by 5:15, so it’s right at the top of my to-do list. Timing doesn’t really matter for anything else on the list, but that one is a fixed commitment.

The next type of entry I enter in bold face, one chore per line. These are things which are special enough that I’m worried I might forget them. For example, today I have Grocery Shopping on the list. I need milk (among other things) and I don’t want to forget that I should shop; otherwise, tomorrow morning I’ll have to drink coffee without milk. If that happens, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s undesirable.

The final type of entry I enter in normal font. These are things I do pretty much every day, and I just want to keep track of whether I’ve done them. For example, I’m on a 1113-day streak with Duolingo and I want to keep the streak going. I’m probably not going to forget to do it, but I like deleting the line on the list so that I know it’s done. When I review my list at the end of the day, I can see whether Duolingo is still on it or not, and take appropriate action.

Writing is definitely on the list: there’s an entry for what I intend to work on in the morning, and what I’m going to do in the afternoon. These are just “normal” entries; I’m not going to forget that I always write in the morning, but it’s good to be clear about what I’ll be doing.

I also use this kind of entry for things like meal-planning—I have entries for breakfast and supper, and what I intend to eat for each. If I haven’t filled in the blank (as in “Breakfast: ?”), then I know I should make a decision before it’s too late.

Doing all this with a Google doc makes things simple—no special software involved, and I can edit the list on any device I own. As I said last time, the best system is the one you’ll actually use…and this one works for me.

Daily Logs

In a few weeks, I’ll be a guest of honour at When Words Collide in Calgary, and while I’m there, I’ll be giving a 15-minute keynote address and an hour-long presentation on…something. I’m in the process of planning those presentations now; I haven’t finalized what I’m doing yet, but it’s got me thinking about planning. As a result, I thought I’d share some of what I do in order to figure out how to spend my days.

Today, I’ll write about my daily log. This records what I consider the most important information about what I’ve done during a day. Each day’s log has eight lines:

Writing AM
What I wrote in the morning and how long I spent on it; for example,
Haunted House novel, 2:45.
Mornings are my most creative time, so I schedule my most important writing then. On a first draft, I usually record word count rather than time spent, but during later drafts, I record time.
Writing PM
What I wrote and/or edited in the afternoon/evening. This is usually when I write short stories and commissioned work. Again, I usually record time, but sometimes word count.
PR
Anything I do as self-promotion…like this blog entry. PR is one of my weak spots, so I really want to keep track of what I’m doing; I need to make sure I’m not letting it slide. It’s a danger sign if I see too many days in a row with this slot blank.
PD
Professional Development: Anything I do to help myself improve as a writer and/or businessperson. Yes, I still read a lot of books on writing and creativity…but I also read stuff on promotion. Typically, this entry will list what I’ve been reading. (As I read PD stuff, I take notes in a separate notebook. The log just records book titles and article headings.)
Reading
What books I’m reading for “fun” (including audiobooks I listen to)
Push-ups
Since I’m trying to get better at push-ups, I record the number I do each day.
Exercise
Other exercise I did during the day including walking, jogging, going to Kung fu class, etc.
Life
Anything else worth recording, like getting a haircut, going to a movie, buying gas, etc. Basically anything I think might be worth keeping track of.

I write all this down by hand in a notebook. At some point, I might switch to keeping records on my computer and/or iPad, but for now, I find it simplest to keep a notebook on my dining room table and scribble log entries throughout the day.

As always with any kind of note-taking, I recommend choosing a medium you’ll actually use. Fancy record-keeping software is pointless if you never fire it up…and for myself, if there’s any friction at all to making a note, I just don’t do it. (Someday I’ll tell you the story of how I stopped watching TV.)

So there, that’s my method: at the start of each day, I write those eight headings in my log book, and then throughout the day, I jot down log entries. This helps me keep on track. If, for example, the Push-ups line is still blank near the end of the day, it shames me into doing some. I admit I don’t like doing them, but how else will I improve?

Villainous Observation

I’m listening to back-broadcasts of the Writing Excuses podcast, and in Season 11, they make an observation about villains. (They tentatively ascribe this observation to Victoria Schwab although they aren’t 100 percent certain.)

The observation is that villains often have a “big picture” motivation for what they do. “In order to save the world, I have to…” “To advance science, I must…” “If I want to improve everyone’s life, I’m going to…” High-level goals are how these villains justify low-level acts of evil: “Murdering a few individuals is insignificant compared to the great things I’m trying to accomplish.”

Heroes, on the other hand, often have small-scale personal motivations. “This villain killed my father.” “If the villains get their way, my friends and family will suffer.” Etc. Paradoxically, such intimate motivations allow a universal connection: any reader can sympathize with someone who wants to avenge their father.

More abstract causes aren’t so easy to connect with emotionally. I may not even agree with a villain’s high-level motivation (do I really want to see America made great again?)…but even if I think what the villain wants to do is admirable, I’m much less likely to continue with, “So it’s okay to commit violence in such a cause.”

I like this observation, and I think it holds true in a ton of fiction: bad guys abstract, good guys personal. I’m passing it on to the readers here, just as something to contemplate.

P.S. But I hate the saying, “The end doesn’t justify the means.” This is often said in the sense of “No end ever justifies any means.” But that’s nonsense. Lots of ends justify lots of means. Cutting people up with knives is usually bad, but if I’m a surgeon performing a life-saving operation, the ultimate goal justifies making careful incisions.

In fact, the end is the only thing that ever justifies any means. Whatever you do, you should have a good reason for doing it; if you don’t, that’s bad.

So I’d rather see the phrase changed to, “Some ends don’t justify some means.” That I wholeheartedly agree with.

Blog? What Blog?

Oh yeah, this blog.

So for the past month or two, I’ve been writing gaming fiction and even some gaming crunch for The Onyx Path. I don’t know how much more I can say at the moment, but it’s kept me busy…mostly because it’s a new experience for me, so I’ve put in quite a bit of time on the work to make sure it’s good.

I get the impression that people who’ve been doing this for a while can produce material a lot faster than me; a number of them work on several projects a month. I’m not at that level of productivity yet, but I hope they’ll keep hiring me—it’s a good group of people to work with, and feedback comes more quickly than with fiction writing.

Still, I am writing fiction, every morning for several hours. I’ve also been doing some editing, and I’ll be leading workshops at When Words Collide in Calgary, Aug 9-11, and VCON in Vancouver, Oct. 11-13.

In the meantime, I intend to start posting regularly again. And as a start, let me announce that I’ll be at Ad Astra in Toronto, but only on the Saturday, July 13. Hope to see lots of people there!

Idle Thoughts on Role-Playing

I’m embarking on a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a number of people who go to the same Kung Fu school as I do. I’m the Dungeon Master, which means I’m the one who sets the stage for the players and who referees the game if necessary. Since four of the five players are beginners, I’ll also be helping them understand the rules, and orienting them a bit in terms of their odds of succeeding or failing.

(Spoiler alert: even though it’s called Dungeons & Dragons, beginning level characters should not try to slay a dragon. They will fail. However, I have a policy with brand new players: I promise that their characters won’t die in the first three sessions. If they really do try to slay a dragon, the dragon may just beat them up, take all their stuff, and leave them naked outside the nearest town. Or more likely, the dragon will singe them a bit, then say, “Okay, if you don’t want to die, you have to agree to run an errand for me…”)

As I said last week, I love planning campaigns. I love dreaming up new worlds full of wild and wonderful things. Also, since this campaign will only be the six of us sitting around a kitchen table, I love stealing stuff from my favorite books, comics, movies, TV, etc.

In my real writing, I can’t steal egregiously…but at the kitchen table, I can. So in the past, I’ve stolen from Doctor Who, Michael Moorcock, Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, and many many many more sources. For me, creating a campaign is a form of fanfic: as over-the-top as I can make it.

But one of the best things about role-playing is that the game isn’t just what I steal and what I invent on my own. It’s a joint creation of everyone at the table, all of them smart and devious. Players always invent their own goals and backstories—stuff that goes beyond what I could dream up on my own. We work together, developing the story from all that material. This means that a role-playing campaign emerges unpredictably from interactions between everyone present. Like good improv theatre, nobody knows what’s going to happen until it happens.

Role-playing is also an excuse to get together with friends. Perhaps that’s the most important feature. Of course, we could just get together and talk…but we probably wouldn’t, and certainly not week after week. Playing the game is fun, but it’s also a pretext to socialize and surprise ourselves in the process.

The next session for this group is Friday night. I may or may not report what happens; I’ll have to talk to the others about it. But if you’ve ever thought you might be interested in role-playing, I strongly encourage it. And perhaps I’ll talk more about role-playing games in the near future.

[Disclaimer: For a lot of you reading this, role-playing games are probably old hat…but given that some readers haven’t played RPGs before, I’ll write these posts assuming no prior knowledge.]

[Dragon picture by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Just a rabbit picture

I had to take a new picture of Bowen for a group I’m part of, and hey, why not post it here too?

(Rabbits generally look very deadpan. That’s just how their faces work. And actually, it’s not easy to get rabbits to sit still for a picture. Deep in their bones, they know the world wants to eat them…so if you focus on them too long, they decide maybe it’s time to be somewhere else.)