Right Now: Let’s begin a series of writing prompts with Janus

Head of Janus, Vatican Museum, Rome


In Roman mythology, Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. (Interestingly, there is no Greek equivalent for Janus.)

The god of looking back and looking ahead presides over doors, arches, gates, passages, and endings – and is in charge of transitional periods such as moving from war to peace.

He is usually depicted as having two faces looking in opposite directions – forward and backward.

The beginning of the day, week, month, and year are sacred to him. Appropriately, the first month of the year, January, was named for him.

Your Assignment:

At a cocktail party one night, you bump into a guy wearing a hoodie who says he’s the Roman god Janus. You laugh so hard you accidentally spill your drink on him.

As he’s leaning over to clean up his outfit, the hoodie falls back, and you see that he has another face on the back of his head.

When he finishes, he looks up at you and tells you intimate details of your immediate past and a glimpse into your immediate future.

What do you do?

Go Write Right Now.

Right Now: 5 decisions I made so I can be more productive in 2022

I have a huge backlog of work to get done this year. Why I have this backlog is a long story, worthy of a thick novel or at least a dramedy mini-series, but let’s just leave it at: Other Things Claimed Front Burner.

This backlog includes ideas that have been tinkered with and expanded into “viability” status as well as some I’ve started and – for various reasons – stopped over the past few months. Wait, did I say months? Haha, I meant to say years. And, sad to say, a few of these have been sitting on my “get this done” list for a decade or more.

These projects include scripts (features, shorts, and TV series), novels (including sequels and 5+-book series), script-to-novel conversions, nonfiction books, ebooks, and guided journals. And then there are various production projects: booklets, calendars, coloring books, greeting cards, jewelry lines, and hand-sewn crafts. Not kidding about those last two. I love handcraft work.

That’s a lot to aim for this year, and I have every intention of blasting through this backlog. But the question is: What’s the best way, short of scheduling my headaches? (Which, by the way, I am perfectly willing to do in the interest of efficiency.)

I bent thought on this matter and came up with the following five decisions – call them resolutions if you must, though I intensely dislike the term – to ramp up my productivity in Year Double-Two. Feel free to borrow any or all of these decisions for your own backlog.

  1. Unplug. When I say “unplug,” I don’t mean never going online. That’s not even doable. Seriously, how would the bills get paid? No, I mean just spending less time scrolling through posts that, by and large, add nothing to my life. Oh sure, there’s the occasional brilliant insight I wouldn’t want to miss, not to mention keeping up with family and friends. Those are the exact reasons I got involved with social media to begin with. But we all know what a time-suck social media can be. My plan is to check twice a day – morning and evening – and otherwise put my computer on airplane mode.
  2. Track My Progress. How do I know if I’m getting ahead unless I keep track and do a review? Well, that question answers itself. And it does so with charts and checklists, most of which are simple (the best!) and effective. I’ll share those in the coming weeks.
  3. Practice Flexible Pivoting. Many of my projects are long-term (novels and scripts don’t get done in a week unless you’re Sylvester Stallone*), and sometimes it’s hard to immerse into one project through its entirety. At least it is for me. So, what I need to do is be able to turn attention to another project (short- or long-term) and work on that. Then, when I get sparked on the previous project again, I can turn back to it. The key is to stay as productive as I can for as long as I can – and to be able to jump from one to the other with ease. This might take some practice, which I’ll note in my progress charts (see #2 above).
  4. Take Naps. Not kidding about this one. Daily R&R is a great way to get refreshed and renewed, at least until the powers-that-be determine we can board cruise ships again. An afternoon snooze has been determined – scientifically, I mean, not just from me doing surveys with myself – to be beneficial. Besides, I’m a morning person, and here’s the cool thing: When I take a nap, I get two mornings out of a day. Quite efficient.
  5. Celebrate Every Little Thing. This might be the most important of all efforts to be productive. No need to wait until “The End” or “Fade Out” – I’m going to dance around my office when I finish a scene or complete the prototype of an earring design. If I set a goal of writing 1,000 words per day, but can complete only 250 one day – so what? I won’t beat myself up for not hitting 1,000. (I don’t work well for someone who beats me up on a bad day, even if it’s me I’m working for.) I’ll high-five myself for getting those 250 words done.

I’ll share my progress, good and bad, throughout this year, along with charts, checklists, and other cool tools I come across or create. Stay tuned for updates.

* Word has it Stallone finished “Rocky” (the first one) in nine days. I salute him.

Right Now: I cannot improve on Seneca’s advice

Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung Berlin. Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2456052

First a word about Seneca:

His full name was Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, and he was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and satirist.

He was known for his philosophical work and his plays, which were all tragedies, but we won’t hold that against him. (Comedy is hard.)

His prose includes a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with morality. His best-known plays include Medea, Thyestes, and Phaedra.

He was quite influential on later generations. During the Renaissance, Seneca was (according to E.F. Watling in Four Tragedies and Octavia) “a sage admired and venerated as an oracle of moral, even of Christian edification; a master of literary style and a model [for] dramatic art.”

This is a guy I’m going to listen to.

Here’s one of his quotes. This is the advice I cannot improve upon — and, I’m guessing, neither can you:

We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene, or from socializing and drinking freely. Occasionally we should even come to the point of intoxication, sinking into drink but not being totally flooded by it; for it does wash away cares, and stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrow just as it heals certain diseases.

Right Now: We need to talk about breaks

Gardening is my go-to for taking a break.

After last week’s post, I thought it might be helpful to go into a little more detail about taking a break from the work.

This column is usually about how to be more creative, more productive, more prolific. And that’s a good thing to focus on, especially when distractions are lurking around every corner, ready to pounce and rip all your good intentions to shreds.

But there’s a flip side. Sometimes all the work-work-work has to take a pause for a while. Sometimes, if it needs to stop completely.

When I say we need to talk about breaks, I don’t mean break-ups or breaking down or being broken – though Lord knows those are among the biggest distractions that wreak havoc on best-laid plans.

No, I mean setting aside whatever you’re doing – on purpose, with purpose. A planned separation from the work you’re devoted to. A deliberate exit from the Get-It-Done-Or-Else highway.

I know what I’m talking about. I’ve tried many times to do the push-the-train-down-the-track routine, and it invariably fails.

Note: I’m not talking about writing sprints, where you really do need to push yourself to complete a project. Sometimes that’s necessary. I’m talking about a day-in/day-out plan of productivity that burns you out. Trust me, it’s not helpful, healthy, or wise.

At this point, you might be asking: Why, if writing is so important, would anyone advocate taking a break from it?

I have an answer. Several of them, in fact:

  1. You’re not a machine; you’re human. Humans need rest and relaxation. (Let’s be honest: Machines are treated better than we sometimes treat ourselves. Machines get turned off now and then for maintenance.) R&R restores our tired bodies, improves our immune systems, and keeps our organs functioning properly.

  2. You’ll come back with fresh, rested eyes. This has happened to all of us: When you’re in the thick of a project, sometimes it’s difficult to see the problematic elements (the old forest/trees analogy). But step away for a bit and when you come back, you can see it. Hence one of the good reasons to take that break.

  3. You might discover how non-important some of the work is. Another thing that can happen is that you come back from the break and discover that the project doesn’t hold the same excitement as it did before. Because before, when you were pushing yourself to get it done, the treadmill you were on kept you going. Now, having spent time away from it, you can see the truth about your relationship with this project. This isn’t anything to be alarmed about. In fact, it’s good. Now you can move it to a place of lesser importance and move something else up – or you can dismiss it entirely if need be. The important thing is that you’ll be working on other things that spark you instead of continuing to feed the must-do that was sitting on your plate.

Whether the break is the weekend, a vacation, a hiatus (with or without an end date), or a sabbatical, the key is to take the break seriously. Respect it. Honor it. Put aside the phone and computer and day planner. Get into nature. Visit with friends. Read a book. Rest. Relax. Rejuvenate. You’ll come back better for it.

Your projects deserve a better you.

I Do Declare: *Right Now* it’s hard to tell what day it is

This I Do Declare post should have gone up Monday. Fact. I missed it because I was neck-deep in a project that took a lot of energy. Also fact.

And not only that: This is the first Right Now post I’ve done in a while, and that’s because I’ve been in high-productivity mode for a few weeks, which meant the mid-week post had to go on hiatus.

A touch of irony there. See, the Right Now posts are all about productivity, following through, keeping momentum, and making tough choices to stay focused and not get sidetracked. Things like: Do I keep going and meet the deadline on the paying gig, or do I set it aside and write a blog post? Do I push through to do everything until I’m completely exhausted, or do I get some sleep? Some choices make themselves.

So essentially, for the past few weeks, I was following my own advice.

Now, that doesn’t mean this blog is expendable or that my readers are less important than paying clients. Please hear me: I am dedicated to this blog and to all of you who take the time to visit, read, and respond. Fact.

I’ve simply come to grips with the reality that if my days are getting busier – and they are, which is a good thing (actually a fabulous thing, given the past year) – then my organizational methods need to scale with my increased activities.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, it was right after I’d been through a Covid-related RIF at my job. It was at the start of the pandemic, and lots of people were getting laid off, which meant finding another job was going to be difficult. I needed a reason to get out of bed, a task to focus on, a diversion from the scary headlines.

Hence these scribblings and screeds – not to mention the outlets for my sense of humor. Seriously, isn’t your life a little better now that you’ve met Belle, Vim & Verve, Writer Girl, Reggaetor, and Grammarcat?

I used to joke that I started a blog so I would know what day it was. It was funny because it was true. And it was true because I needed order and organization and I needed to keep track of time.

I still do.

Today is Wednesday, April 21, 2021. I have many writing projects on my plate, and I am determined to find a streamlined, effective way to be productive.

And there we have it. This blog is still a great time-telling device. I think I’ll keep it.

Right Now: Want to uncover your superpowers? Take a nap.

Not long ago I spotted articles here, here, and here that led me to one conclusion:

Science is finally catching up with me. When it comes to my philosophy on naps, I mean.

I believe in naps. Every day. More than once a day, if possible. That’s not laziness talking. That’s proper energy maintenance.

You see, our energy ebbs and floods throughout the day. Sometimes the energy is high, sometimes it’s low, and it has nothing to do with how many “energy drinks” are consumed. (By the way, I’m not a huge fan of those “energy drinks” – which is why I put it in quotes – but I’ll go into all of my reasons in a future post.)

Back to the peaks and valleys of energy. My high-energy time is first thing in the morning. After a good rest, I bounce out of bed and am ready to get the day going. (The one exception, of course, is if I’m sick – and that requires a completely different system of energy management.)

So if my energy is high when I wake up, then taking a nap means I get two mornings out of one day, effectively doubling my high-energy output.

And no, it’s not that simple. I won’t automatically be able to do twice the creative work. But taking that break in the middle of the day (at a time when my energy level has ebbed down to its lowest) has three distinct benefits:

  • A reboot. Sometimes there’s a lot going on, and the day gets busy and frantic and occasionally overwhelming. Those are the days when a nap is like a mental reboot. Shut down and start back up. Most of the time I reawaken from a nap in a much calmer state than my initial morning wake-up.
  • Possible inspiration. Naps are great for solving perplexing problems, even the heavy emotional ones where you can’t see a way out, over, under, or through. It doesn’t necessarily work every time, but more often than not, my subconscious will sort through the tangled mess and come up with a doozy of a dream. Then, depending on how sharp my dream analysis skills are at the moment, some things will start to make sense.
  • Off-the-grid. Many studies (again, topic for a future post) point to how harmful it is to our bodies to be constantly plugged in. And honestly, most of us don’t need a study to tell us that it’s not okay to carry your phone everywhere or check email all the time. Getting away from the electronic connection to Every.Single.Thing.In.The.World is mental health must. And the fastest, most efficient way to do that is to take a nap. Get unconscious for 20 or 30 minutes, and there’s no way you can check your email. Fact.

Just like the energy grids that bring light, heat, and A/C into our homes, proper energy management for the body means working with the body’s own efficiencies.

Instead of pushing through the low energy periods with caffeine or chocolate or a brisk walk around the block – things I often did in the past – why not give your body some respect? Take a nap. Your body will thank you for it later.

Right Now: A tale of two projects – or, there are reasons why some things take longer than you think

I recently worked on two similar projects – both journal books about the same size, both self-published (laid out and produced by me), both going up on Kindle/Amazon.

And I was equally excited about working on both.

One is a guided journal for the season of Lent. The other is a morning-and-evening guided journal about gratitude.

Logic says both should have taken about the same amount of time.

They didn’t. I have a few ideas why.

Firm Deadline. The Lent journal had an unmovable deadline of the week before Ash Wednesday. The prayer journal had no deadline. For me, a hard deadline is necessary. If the project has no deadline, I’m more likely to meander my way to completion. In cases where there isn’t an external or calendar-related deadline, I might need to set an agreement with a colleague to finish by a certain time.

Clear Focus. The Lent journal, obviously, is focused on disciplines, study, and introspection. The morning/evening journal went through several iterations because I had to find the precise way to invite the reader into the pages. Taking time to get the words right isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that the Lent journal already had a pre-defined focus, whereas the other journal had more of a blank-page beginning to the project.

Certainty About Audience. In both cases, the audience consists of those who like devotional books, introspective journaling, and writing prompts that lead to contemplation. The difference is that the Lent journal is aimed toward those who are familiar with the church seasons, and the other journal can be useful for a wider audience, including those who have no experience with churches or any religions. The second took longer in part because I wanted to be sure the book was engaging and valuable for the wider audience, which meant getting feedback from several people. Again, not a bad thing, just a different set of factors that determined completion time.

Have you noticed similar comparisons in your own work? Did discovering the differences help with future project planning? Tell me about it in the comments.

Right Now: If you aren’t sure about your path, check the oil

Battle of olive oil with olive branch in handmade clay plate over wooden table.

If there’s one thing that’ll stop my productivity right in its tracks, it’s second-guessing myself and my current path.

Is this what I should be working on right now? What about all those other things that are important? Am I actually doing what I was called to do? And the most distracting question of all: How do I know? (Along with its sequels: But how do I know that I know? And how do I know that I know that I know? – etc. until the cows come home.)

Those questions used to torture me until I discovered a reassuring way to know with some certainty:

Check the oil.

That probably sounds a bit strange, so I’ll unpack it for you.

When we’re inside God’s will, we’re anointed for the task. In Old Testament times, when people were anointed, the priest would pour oil on their heads, which signified God’s blessing.

Basically, they were oiled up.

So when we’re inside God’s will, we too are oiled up. Anointed.

Now, think of a car and what it means for the car to be oiled up. That means it runs smoothly, the pistons gliding inside the cylinders with ease, moving the vehicle down the road.

When the car has no oil – that is, when it’s not oiled up (“not anointed” for its task) – it’s basically metal against metal. Friction. Overheating. Sometimes complete engine failure.

In terms of knowing whether we’re doing what we’re made to do, here’s the clue: When we’re anointed for the task, even the struggles are easy to handle. When we’re not, even the easy things are a struggle.

The next time the questions swoop in, screeching and shrieking and dropping doubts all around your work, don’t let them bury you under their weight.

Just check the oil.