Love for the Dash/Plus System

Bullet Journaling has become extremely popular in the last few years. Ryder Carroll, the guy who invented the bullet journal system, initially created a key or set of symbols that stand for particular types of items in the Bullet Journal. For example, a dot for a task and a circle for an event. However, if you take a look on YouTube or Instagram, it appears that a lot of people love to create their own symbols—anything from the ubiquitous checkbox for a task, to elaborate shapes that have special, personal meanings to some people and are completely meaningless to others.

I’ve always been fascinated by Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal system. I tried it for a a couple of months with great results. It was the closest I ever came to a fully analogue organisational system, and the only reason I strayed from it was to try out the new and shiny Things 3 app.

The thing is, the official Bullet Journal key doesn’t work for me, for two reasons:

  1. There are too many symbols to remember, and if I have to refer to a key, I’m much less interested and the system becomes less useful for me.
  2. At the time of entering data into the notebook, I have to think about which symbol I have to use, and that creates friction. For me, what Ryder calls ‘Rapid Logging’ must be completely and utterly frictionless to be effective.

So, I ended up adopting the Bullet Journal methodology (the calendar, the collections, etc) alongside a system I came across a few years ago that was created by Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac and Enough fame. It’s called Dash/Plus, and its brilliance lies in its simplicity.

The foundation of the system is the dash: one simple horizontal line (-). Every single item that is noted down can be done so using just the dash, and can be built upon to turn each item into a different kind of item.

In Patrick’s own words:

The beauty of this system is that it is all built upon, and extensions of, the original dash. Therefore, it is easy to change items from one state to another (an undone action item to a done one, an undone action item to waiting or delegated) and in the case of an non-dashed item changing completely the item is circled to denote that.

This means that I can note down a bunch of tasks, events, and notes in one fell swoop and without paying any mind to what kinds of items they are, like this:

– write essay

– the Chinese restaurant is closed on Tuesdays

– lunch with Steph next Friday 12pm

These are three different kinds of items. The first is a task, something I need to do or take action on. The second is something I need to remember, reference for later, or note down somewhere else. The third is an event, something to add into my calendar for future reference. But when I wrote all of these things down, I did so using only the dash.

Once I’ve written the essay, I can mark that task off to indicate that it’s complete by adding a vertical line down the middle, creating a plus (+). When I come back to check my notes for the day (usually during the evening for me), I can turn the second item’s dash into a triangle to create a data point entry (something informational or to reference later if necessary). At the same time, I can add a lunch meeting at 12pm tomorrow to my calendar, and draw a circle around the dash for the third item to indicate that it has been carried forward to a new list (or in this case, a calendar entry).

The best part is that it’s all perfectly customisable and extendable. I’ve ended up creating a system that uses an asterisk as a note or data point instead of the triangle, which is still built from the original dash but much easier for me to draw repeatedly throughout the day.

Using this system with the official Bullet Journal system is a no-brainer, but I also recommend it to those who use pen and paper to jot things down throughout the day. It gives your random, haphazard notes a bit more structure and meaning (which is helpful when referencing them later) without spending any real time or energy learning a new system. Seriously, who has time for that these days?

NaNoWriMo 2014 Recap

NaNoWriMo 2014 StatisticsDespite my blog being a desolate wasteland for the last half of 2014, I did, in fact, participate in NaNoWriMo last November.

And it was such a glorious struggle, I wanted to give a brief recap.

In past years, I wrote that NaNoWriMo had outgrown its usefulness to me as a writer as I began to develop regular writing habits of my own. That remains somewhat true. I certainly don’t do my best work during NaNoWriMo, and its fast pace doesn’t allow for taking a break to step back and look at the big picture without falling behind, not when there are precious words that need to be written to hit that daily word count goal.

I find that taking a break from word crunching to stop and gain some perspective is not only helpful but necessary for my writing. It keeps me motivated and helps with the flow of ideas. During NaNo, I often miss being able to set the word count aside for a day and just work on the direction I’d like to take my story in. You know, to just sit there and ponder and daydream and plan. Sure, there’s nothing actually stopping me from doing this, but it would mean being another 1,667 words behind the month’s word count, and I often just can’t be bothered playing catch-up.

So, NaNoWriMo has its down sides, you could say, but here’s what it’s really great for:

Putting your butt in the chair and hands on the keyboard and WRITING THE WORDS.

And even professional writers (especially those who work within deadlines) benefit from that sentiment. All writers, whatever their experience level, need a bit of motivation, a bit of a push, an excuse, a reason, or some encouragement to actually get the words onto the page sometimes, and if that’s the only reason for someone to participate in NaNoWriMo, then that’s okay. It’s more than okay, it’s perfectly fine.

I think that’s why I continue to take part. Well, 50% of it is that. The other 50% is an excuse to talk about writing with other people who write, and even people who don’t, and really just spread the love of writing with anyone and everyone. I find a lot of non-writers are very curious about NaNoWriMo, and ask a lot of questions when I mention what I’ve been up to over the month. If the conversation reaches someone with even a shred of interest in writing a novel, and encourages them to actually take the plunge, then that’s awesome, and that’s what keeps me doing it.

That aside, how did NaNoWriMo 2014 go for me? Yeah, it was a struggle, a real battle, especially towards the end, but it was also my most successful one to date. It was the first time I actually completed my story. It has a distinct beginning, middle and end. It has a clear three act structure. It also has some secondary characters that are a tad more well-rounded than the usual cardboard cutouts that follow me around all November (a byproduct of pantsing rather than planning; without planning out my characters prior to actually writing, they generally turn out as either boring or schizophrenic).

This is also the first NaNoWriMo novel (out of five!) that I want to rewrite and edit and keep going with. It’s gotten under my skin, like an itch that won’t go away, and I’m taking that as a good sign. It means my characters still have more to say and do, and the content isn’t so dull or horrid that I don’t want to spend another second looking at it.

I averaged 1671 words per day. There were only three days where I didn’t write any words at all, and I generally made up for those the following days by having two writing sessions on those days, one in the morning and one in the evening. Yep, The fear of falling behind and not being able to catch up again is pretty good motivation for me. I’m such a sucker.

I finished with a total word count of 50,153 with one day to spare. I actually finished my story several days before that and had to go back and find other things to write; scenes that I’d skipped over because I didn’t feel like writing them at the time, or backstories for my characters so I could get to know them a little better.
But every word counts, and I eventually crossed the finish line, as did 40,325 other determined writers, according to the official NaNoWriMo stats. Guys, we wrote a freaking novel in a month! That’s pretty amazing.

Writing update for 4th August, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks for uni, I’ve been reading about the writing processes of several published authors.

What I’ve learned isn’t particularly surprising, but it’s extraordinarily comforting and reassuring.

You see, I know that for most writer’s what they first put on the page is utter rubbish and will remain so until they go through a series of edits and refinements to bring it towards the completed story. This is the writing process for the majority of writers, and while some writers are lucky enough to put diamonds on the page the first time around, it’s a rarity. But there’s a difference between actually knowing that fact, and accepting it as something that will also happen to you.

Like many other writers, the hardest part for me is always getting started. I think I’m afraid of the mess. If I’m scribbling notes all over the place to simply get my ideas out of my head and onto the page, I know they’re going to be in a state of disarray, utter chaos, out of order, existing in a state of limbo, separated from what I hope to be an actual cohesive story. That scares me a bit. But over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading about the writing processes of several different published authors, one of those being Peter Carey’s early writing process for Oscar and Lucinda which gave me a glimpse of his early notes, and, honestly, they’re all over the place; muddy, incoherent, jumbled, etc… BUT! They’re detailed. They are evidence of the author scratching away at an idea that he can’t let go of, that his mind simply can’t abandon, that he’s desperate to beat into submission in one way or another, to form connections with, to uncover a truth. And really, the only way to do that is to write. Write whatever comes to you. Don’t mind the mess. Revel in it. See it for what it is: ideas out of the head and onto the page, words that you can actually do something with.

So, I guess this week, more than anything I feel encouraged. It doesn’t matter if my first drafts are utter crap, at least it’s something to work with. And while I knew that before, I guess I hadn’t quite accepted it to the point where I was no longer letting it stop me from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and simply getting started.

I think I’ve finally let go of that fear. I no longer care so much about the mess. And that’s a bigger step than I realised.

Books I wish I’d read when I was younger #1

My commute to work involves a 15 minute walk, followed by a 23 minute train ride. I’ll have my nose stuck in a book while on the train, but for the walk it’s usually podcasts I’ll be listening to. I don’t subscribe to a great deal of them, maybe ten, tops, of which four or five I’ll regularly listen to. One of those is SF Squeecast (SF fans, go listen, it’s fantastic!).

Anyway, I was listening to the current episode on the walk to the station the other day, the topic of conversation for this episode being about books we wish we had read when we were younger. A couple of days before, I had finished Brandon Sanderson’s epic tome of a book, The Way of Kings, and listening to that episode I realised something…

I really wish I’d read fantasy books as a kid.

I mean, sure, I read a few during my teens, mostly some Forgotten Realms books as I was big into playing Neverwinter Nights at the time, but none of the classics or the fan favourites, and nothing that could really be considered ‘epic fantasy’. And I don’t just mean Tolkein (I think I would have been bored to tears with a Tolkein’s books as a kid—I still am as an adult. Believe me, I’ve tried!). No, I mean authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan, and Raymond E. Feist, authors that wrote books which contain huge fantasy worlds, fully realised characters and unique ideas that I think would have influenced my young mind in a way that would have made me a different person entirely.

It took reading The Way of Kings and absolutely adoring it to come to the realisation that I really do love fantasy as a genre, but the books just need to be the right ones. Then again, I guess that goes for books in any genre, even my beloved science fiction. I just wish I’d had someone to suggest some great fantasy books to me when I was a kid. Hell, speculative fiction books in general. I suppose missing out on them as a kid has one advantage: I now have a whole bunch of them to look forward to as an adult.

My ‘to read’ list just became about three times as long.

A new blank page

What has it been? A year and a half? My habits of abandoning my blogs are becoming well-known at this point. It occurs to me that this blog stopped dead in its tracks almost precisely a year and a half ago when I began a new job and started university at pretty much the same time. Life got busy. Ha, no, busy doesn’t even cut the mustard. Life got fracking insane. It still is. But at least I’ve (somewhat) learnt to balance things a bit better. Or pretend do. Something like that.

The reality is that I need to force myself to start writing again after a looooong hiatus, and writing regular blog posts is one way of doing that. I also wanted to begin again with a clean slate, so most of the old shitty blog posts are gone (and saying shitty is being kind, trust me), though I did keep the NaNoWriMo ones as that will be continuing trend. I’ve learnt my lesson, so I’m not going to promise anything this time around. But I will say this: this space here is intended to document my writing journey and to share some interesting bits and pieces that I stumble across regarding writing, reading, books, authors, publishing, etc… With a bit of randomness thrown in for good measure.

I’m taking some time off study next semester to just write and read and learn my craft, so I won’t be able to make excuses about not having the time. I’m enrolled in a single unit at uni, which involves a writing project, and that’s it. So my life will consist of working, writing, and reading over the next six months (and playing Dragon Age Inquisition when it comes out, and taking a week’s holidays in order to finish it, and I’m not ashamed to admit that, dammit).

Anyway… Here’s to new beginnings, the clean slate, the blank page… And let’s stop with this soppy crap now, eh? I’m off to finish reading Brandon Sanderson’s brilliant and epic doorstop of a book, The Way of Kings.

Standing at the end of the road, but looking ahead

I love NaNoWriMo. I love the idea of it, the experience of it, and the satisfaction you get from participating in it with a bunch of other people in exactly the same boat as you. It’s all about forming habits, setting goals, and just jumping in there, head first, and not looking back. And while it is, in practice, all about writing, its concepts can be applied to anything in life.

Which is why it’s pretty gut-wrenching for me to admit that I can’t continue on my NaNoWriMo journey this year. Simply put, my life has other plans for me this month.

The last week has been one of the craziest, most intense, exciting, and atypical weeks I’ve had in many years. For the first few days I soldiered on with my word count, despite being plagued with a nasty head cold and being utterly exhausted and brain dead at the end of each busy day. But a few days into that week, which was at end of day seven of NaNoWriMo and after 10,227 words, I realised something:

I wasn’t having fun anymore.

In the beginning, I’d gotten in there early and got a bit of a lead with my word count, just because I knew it was going to drop off considerably as soon as the craziness began. When that craziness did begin, I continued on with it, but it was for reasons that I don’t consider good reasons. Reasons like stubbornness, and because I’d told several people that I was doing NaNoWriMo again this year and didn’t want to look like a quitter. Meanwhile, I was ignoring what I actually needed in my life this month; dedicated time for some R&R, reflection on each day’s events, and time spent with the important people in my life. In reality, I’d simply bitten off more than I could chew. I thought I’d be okay, going through this crazy, out-of-routine, transitional point in my life while still achieving each day’s word count. And while I know that I still could achieve it if I wanted to, I know what it will cost me. I need my sleep, my down time, and my social life and support circle right now more than ever.

The other reason is that my participation in NaNoWriMo has evolved over the years. My first NaNo in 2009 was when I really needed that push to get those words down every day, to form those habits, to write that book that had been floating around in my head for years. It’s a fantastic tool to use for that kind of thing. But now I’ve formed those habits, I do try to write consistently, and NaNo has become an event that I participate in for fun and to be a part of the community. The forums are very lively during November and filled with useful, encouraging, and deeply entertaining discussion. Without the time and ability to be a part of that right now, its purpose is not the same.

It’s still pretty hard to admit to myself that it’s okay to stop. I don’t like to quit anything, whatever the reason. My personality type usually forces me to continue with things until the bitter, bitter end. But even though I won’t be completing the journey with the rest of you NaNoWriMo crazies, I don’t come away from this experience unchanged. I’ve learnt a thing or two about myself, mostly that I’m now grown-up enough to recognise what’s truly important in my life, and that to think about myself and what I need isn’t a selfish thing to do.

Also, I’m proud of the fact that I attempted it this year rather than not bothering in case I didn’t have the time. It’s always better to give it a go. If you don’t succeed, so what? It’s rarely ever about the end result anyway.

Of those 10,227 words that I’ve written, most of them are a bit rubbish. Okay, a lot rubbish. But you know what? Some of them are okay. Some of them are even great. And some of them I’ll actually use when I finish the thing. It won’t be during November, but it will get written one day, and it will get finished, and I’m super excited about that. Also, I’d be lying if I said I’m not relieved to be able to write it a teensy bit slower than the break-neck pace during NaNoWriMo. To those of you still in for the long haul: enjoy the experience, learn a bunch of things about yourselves, and write like the wind!

Gearing up for November

November, November, November. Less than four days away. Specifically, 3.4 days. Just over 82 hours until we can start doing the fun stuff, the actual writing for NaNoWriMo.

And to be completely honest, I’ve hardly given it much thought until now.

Oh, I’ve spent a few brain cells on it here and there, sure, but I usually try to get into the NaNoWriMo spirit by frequenting the forums, writing a series of blog posts, and interacting with other NaNoWriMo wordmonkeys on Twitter and the like. But my brain has been elsewhere lately, focusing on all the craziness that awaits me next month (potentially moving house, new job, new life, eeep!).

So, here’s what I do have: A project set up in Scrivener, all ready to go. Within it is a poor excuse for an outline, with a sprinkling of major plot developments and ideas for scenes. I’ve also fleshed out a couple of my main characters. Sort of. Not as much as I would have liked, but, well, it’s a start.

And I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make; a start is all you need. The rest of the magic happens in November, when you’re sleep deprived and tapping away at the keyboard in the midst of a caffeine high. But the start of an outline, even just a handful of events you want to have happen in the story, can go a long way.

I really like Jane Espenson’s approach to outlining:

Start by making a “beat sheet” in which each development in the story is given one or two sentences, then flesh it out until you’ve got a list of scenes and you know what’s going to happen in each one.

That’s pretty much how I like to do things as well. It’s simple, but it works. It helps you to figure out the flow of your story, and that’s especially useful for NaNoWriMo where flow is important. A basic outline provides the big slab of meat so you can spend more time and creative energy figuring out which side dishes to serve with it, such as character development and subplot. And lots and lots of wordy exposition to fill up the daily word quota. You know, the fun stuff.

I’ll probably flick through this one again, too:


…mostly for the ritual rather than necessity, but it’s also nice to be reminded that we’re all in this together, and week two is full of storm clouds and plot flashes for everyone.

The “Oh Shit” Part of October

It’s the “oh shit” part of October, the part where you realise NaNoWriMo starts in a mere 16 days, and it’s ACTUALLY HAPPENING, and OH SHIT WHAT AM I GOING TO WRITE?!

Okay, that might be a smidge of an exaggeration, but only just. See, last year I tried “pantsing” it. That is, writing without an outline. Just winging it.

Yeah, that didn’t really work out. My brain just isn’t wired for that kind of writing style, at least not for sustained writing in a frenzied manner, a.k.a. National Novel Writing Month. I need some sort of… Well, something, anything, to use as a guide no matter how emaciated it is, even if it resembles nothing but a few leftover bones. A little bit of structure just seems to help my brain calm down and think, “It’s cool, man… I know where I’m going. For now.”

This will be my fourth NaNoWriMo, and I’ve crossed the finish line each year so far. You’d think that would make me pretty confident about it this time around, right? Nope. This November’s going to be tough. I might be facing a new job, readying myself for uni next year, and probably moving house. My brain is rebelling:

“Writing? HA! You probably won’t even get time to wash your underwear this month. Damn optimist.”

But I’m going to give it my best shot, no matter how unrealistic the notion of actually finishing it this year. Put in perspective, finishing isn’t really the point. The spirit of NaNoWriMo is about just going for it, experimenting, getting out that novel that’s been living inside you for years, and forming new habits. That last one is the important one for me. Knowing that I need to write 1,667 words every day to get to the finish line is motivating. All things considered, it’s not even very much. But it forces me to stop turning the words over and over in my head, and just get them down on the screen already. Every. Single. Day.

…’Cause ideas are kind of useless if you don’t do something with them, you know?

NaNoWriMo 2011

This November was the busiest month I’ve had in a looong time. I’m talking years, here. And it wasn’t the oh-my-god-I-can’t-cope-and-just-want-to-go-to-bed-and-sleep-forever kind of busy, but rather the good kind of busy where you feel like you’re achieving something and making progress in your life.

For most of October leading up to the event, I was convinced I wouldn’t have time for NaNoWriMo this year and would have to give it a miss. But something made me do it. You know, that little voice inside your head saying “You can do it, you crazy-ass lunatic!” So I listened to it. And with less than a week to go before November 1st, I came up with the shell of a main character and a vague plot (or something like a plot, anyway), and decided I’d just have to wing it for the rest. She’ll me right, mate. How hard can it really be?

Umm… Well, short answer: Really Damn Hard. it was definitely the hardest of the three years I’ve participated. The month was super busy, sure, but finding the time to write was the least of my worries. The main issue I had was with the story itself. It was my first attempt at tackling fantasy (a genre I rarely read to begin with), I wasn’t sure which point of view I should stick with (so I wrote in a whole bunch of different ones to try to figure that out), and I didn’t have anything that remotely resembled a plan for my novel. Plus, I began to resent my characters, many of which turned out to have the personality of a doormat.

I got stuck in a rut so many times that I often had to stop with the scene I was currently writing and write something else entirely, like a flashback scene, or something to flesh out my protagonist a bit. But I always wrote my way out of those ruts, and that’s something to be proud of. To continue writing when your creative well has long run dry is a skill to be acquired, after all.

As for finding the time to write, it’s funny how much more conscious you become of your leisure time and how you spend it when you suddenly introduce another time-consuming activity into your life. I wrote a lot in the mornings before work, often getting my word count in for the day over breakfast. There were a lot of days I didn’t write at all which meant I fell behind on more than one occasion. But I always tried to make up for those words when I could, and somehow I managed to stay on target for most of November. I’m still not quite sure how, but I think it’s got something to do with being consistent and forming habits. 1,667 words a day is a pretty simple affair when you make sure to do it every day, instead of letting it build up and become this horrible, hideous monster of a thing that you pretend doesn’t exist just so you don’t have to deal with it.

I think I learnt more about myself and about writing this year than I did in either of the previous two years. So, yeah, it was hard, and I had to postpone a few activities that I really love to do, and brush off a few social gatherings with friends. But, damn, was NaNoWriMo worth my time this year. I discovered that I can cram more stuff onto my plate than I ever thought possible (and without going bat shit insane.) I discovered that writing dialogue comes quite naturally to me (and that writing exposition is something that I reeeally need to work at). And most importantly, I discovered that my writing turns to a steaming pile of donkey poo when I don’t have some sort of plan to work from. Lesson learned.

The best part? As soon as I’d hit the 50,000 word finish line, my brain was eager to start work on some ideas I’ve had for other writing projects. Honestly, I think it’d had enough of my cardboard characters and couldn’t wait to be rid of them. But I see it as a good sign; that I’ve formed some habits, and still enjoy writing despite some of the hard days this November when my muse seemed to have abandoned me for another galaxy entirely. I soldiered on. I crossed the finish line with 50,007 words. And I’m damn proud of that, even if my novel turned out to be a mile-high dung heap and my worst book yet. No, especially because of it. There’s at least a handful of great ideas in there that I can re-use for future projects. At least a handful.

Can’t wait to steal those ideas from myself and put them into a brand new book that I can write considerably slower than the crazy pace of NaNoWriMo. After a well-deserved break, that is. In the mean time I have about a bzillion video games to catch up on that I missed out on during November. Finishing them all is going to be a harder task than NaNoWriMo ever was, but that little voice is saying “You can do it, you crazy-ass lunatic!”. So I’ll be damned if I don’t at least try. 😉

NaNoWriMo 2010 Mission Accomplished

I survived another November… And, man, was it full of awesome. Another NaNoWriMo done and dusted. Another 50,000 words to show for it.

The highlights:

  • Much more challenging than last year (a good thing!). I didn’t have much in the way of an outline or plan, so for the most part I was just winging it. Or, in NaNo lingo, pants-ing it. I’m a big-time planner, so it was good to get out of my comfort zone for a change.
  • About twice as fun as last year. Two main reasons for this: I’d done it all before so I knew what to expect, and I actually liked the story I was writing. That last one makes a big difference in terms of motivation, as you’d imagine.
  • I discovered the genius of word sprints (setting a time limit and just going for it with the aim of writing as much as you can). Writing in 300 to 500-word blocks several times throughout the day is waaaay more achievable and less of a brain drain than sitting down and doing the 2,000-word hard slog until you’re finished. Also, I ended up writing more words per day when doing this, which was a nice side effect.
  • About half-way through, I realised I wasn’t writing book one of my trilogy, it was more like book two or three. Yeah, that was an interesting discovery. I’m actually pretty damn excited to expand on what I’ve already written and figure out what came before it.
  • I found my passion for writing again and realised I hadn’t actually lost it, it’s just that I hadn’t maintained the habit of daily writing. I plan to continue with my story, but first I need to spend some time organising what I’ve already got (it’s a huge jumbled mess) and doing more brainstorming and worldbuilding (the fun stuff!) before I can continue the writing part.
  • Reading while writing influences my writing style waaay too much. I think it’s because I haven’t found my own voice yet, my own writing style, y’know. Then again, when a book is so good that you can’t put it down, you’re at its mercy. There were a few days when writing definitely came second.

If you participated this year: Good on ya! You took part in something that takes a lot of balls, attention span, and time. Most folks who say “I want to write a book someday” never do, so be proud of the fact that you actually set out to do it, no matter what the end result was. And if you won this year: Yeah, yeah, don’t let it go to your head. You’ve got December to look forward to… The month of editing. Muahahaha! (But more seriously, congrats!). I’ll be doing it all over again next year if anyone wants to join me (I hope I won’t have to bully too many of you into it… Ahh, who am I kidding, that’s half the fun).