How to Actually Get Things DONE: Suggestions for the New Year

How to Actually Get Things DONE: Suggestions for the New Year

Getting things Done

Are you a getting-things-done systems junkie? I am, and I thought I had my personal system settled once and for all until I took a Tim Grahl course on being a productive writer. Yeah, I know, my sixth novel will be published this coming spring, so some might think I already am productive. Not so! It takes me three to five years to write a novel, and I find that I’m constantly chasing my tail. I’m not getting younger and I have a number of books I want to write.

So here is my current system, in short:

I use the Things app as a database for recording the procedures of those chores I do rarely (like taxes) — things that I forget how to actually do. Keeping an itemized procedures list means I don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. Time saver!

I use Levenger Circa notebooks which are handy because you can add pages and take them out. I would stick scraps of little post-its with To Do items on them onto the notebook pages. The problem was that I rarely looked at all of them, so some important items were forgotten. Also, I was drowning in scraps of tiny post-it notes.

One thing that has worked for years: I restricted my daily schedule and things I aimed to do onto a 3×3 post-it. (I’m partial to white, which I have to order.)

The new and revelatory addition to my system is using The Autofocus Time Management System. I tend to stall when faced with doing something I’m just not into doing.This system solves that problem because there is always something I’m inspired to actually do. Also, I tend not to forget things. I recommend it!

Good luck! I’m curious to learn your tips. If you use this system and like it, let me know.

Happy New Year!







How to Begin to Write a Book

Every stage of writing a book is a challenge—the beginning, the middle, and the end—but I think figuring out how to begin to write a book might be the most difficult.

I’m at the beginning stage of writing my next novel now. I’m going to use Scrivener for this one, and so I have a lot to learn. It’s coming.

I’ve started etching out a plot using plot “beats” I’ve gleaned from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Yet I’ve been floundering. I’m accustomed to writing biographical fiction, with reams of biographies to work from. That has its own challenges, certainly, but for me, the free fall of a novel based on someone about whom there are only a few paragraphs written—and whose existence is debated, at that—is even more challenging.

I’ve discovered a book that is excellent for the pre-plot stage: Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).

I’ve resisted this book because it felt too gimmicky, but it was recommended by writers I respect and admire, and so I’m giving it a try. I’m impressed! It’s helping me to closely define my protagonist before I construct the plot. It doesn’t make it easy (nothing can), but it’s highly worthwhile. If you are at the pre-plot stage—or if you are having difficulty knowing how to begin writing—I recommend you read this book. Better yet, do the exercises.

Story Genius, an excellent book for the PRE-plot stage.

How do you begin writing a book? What works for you?





In Praise of Japan

In Praise of Japan

Pacific ocean.

It’s a big world! The plane ride from Toronto, Canada, to Tokyo, Japan, took 12 hours.

My husband and I took a long trip this fall, to Japan for three weeks. It was fantastic! We are culinary travelers, and Japan was a treat.

A Japanese meal.

We had many meals like this. :-)

A tempura restaurant in Tokyo, Japan.

We often chose to sit where we could watch the cooks at work.

Dragon melon.

We discovered many new foods. This is dragon melon.

I had spent two summers in Japan as a teen, staying with my aunt and uncle (who flew for Japan Airlines) and my two cousins. My cousins and I traveled the country from top-to-bottom, traveling on trains and staying at youth hostels, which were wonderful. The following summer, my mother, my two younger siblings and I returned, again staying at hostels. I never wanted to leave.

My family forged strong bonds with Japan over the years. My father, an airline pilot for PanAm, flew to Tokyo regularly, bringing back intriguing treasures. My brother and his wife became importers of Japanese antiques, and their son Robert is carrying on the family business. After my father retired, my mother and father went to Japan many times with my brother and his wife in search of antiques, becoming passionate restorers of Japanese antiques and enthusiastic flea-marketers.

I wondered, returning, how much Japan would have changed in over fifty years. It turned out: not that much. It was more built up, certainly, and more modern (in delightful ways), but it still had that sense of aesthetic beauty and gracious charm I remembered so well.

I remembered being surprised as a teen at how clean, tidy and lovely the houses were that backed onto the train tracks. Were there no slums in Japan? It turned out that same is true today.

We saw few trash bins, yet not a speck of litter — or graffiti, for that matter. Japan has near to full employment and no homeless (that we could see). All this was also true fifty years ago.

Japan was remarkably safe in years past. My mother left her purse on a train — it was returned within a day. It had been handed back person to person through two trains and taken to where we were staying in a rural youth hostel. Imagine that! In our three weeks in Japan, we saw very few police, yet the country is orderly and safe.

(In fact, Japan has the lowest rate of gun violence in the developed world. Annual gun deaths are often in the single digits, compared to 33,000 annually in the US. I posted an info-video on how they manage this to Facebook here.)

But most of all, I fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic all over again. As a teen, I read Japanese writers in translation and I’m looking forward to revisiting those books once again. There is something about their spare, understated prose that I continue to aspire to. This was a trip that will stay with me for many years to come.









House of books & dreams

painting of a woman reading

The Window Seat by William Orpen,1901

Imagine a little house—or, rather, more properly, a two-story reading room—containing thousands of books. Imagine this house on the outskirts of Killaloe, a rural village of six hundred in northern Ontario.


I had the pleasure of visiting “Love’s Healing Reading Room” with authors Merilyn Simonds and Wayne Grady last week. We quickly lost ourselves in exploring this eclectic library, books collected by Dr. George Linn over his all-too-short lifetime.

Two books that “caught my fancy” (I love that expression*) were A Cordiall Water by MFK Fisher—

—and Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book.


The quote below is from a blog post Merilyn Simonds wrote about the reading room, months before we visited it: 

“Over [Dr. Linn’s] lifetime, he collected 60,000 books, which he shelved in his house and in his office. When he died, all the books were shipped to a two-storey house built specifically to house them in the small village where he had planned to retire. The house is furnished with bookshelves, squishy chairs and couches, and a wood stove for winter. A sign by the perpetually unlocked front door asks readers to leave their electronic devices in the bowl by the entrance and to enjoy the books within the reading room, returning them to the shelves for the pleasure of others.”

George Linn originally grouped most of his books according to how they connected. From Merilyn’s blog post: “He believed it was more conducive to the positive power of books and reading if you could look at a book on a shelf and draw your own connections between it and the books on either side—connections within yourself and within the room.” Now the books are grouped by genre or subject—fiction, Jung (several shelves), self-help, poetry (on two walls), history, etc. Jackie Goodheart, George’s widow, imagines that this will change naturally over time, with use.The setting is bucolic, the rooms inviting with comfortable reading chairs.  I’m looking forward to going back.

* Caught my fancy: according to the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary, the noun fancy goes back to the mid-15th century:

fantsy “inclination, liking,” contraction of fantasy. It took the older and longer word’s sense of “inclination, whim, desire.”

That describes perfectly the feeling of discovering such books.







Like wild! In the pink! On final stage revision …

Like wild! In the pink! On final stage revision …

Coming up for air after finishing writing a novel.

I started writing this post six months ago, back when The Game of Hope was titled Moonsick. As part of the final check, then, I was looking for “legal” and “illegal” words—that is, words that didn’t exist in 1800.

Here are the words and phrases I was surprised to discover were sufficiently ancient:



like wild

in the pink

I continued to do this for every draft that followed, keeping a master list of okay, and not okay words.

I sent in the “final final” draft yesterday around 2:00, and last night, at dinner, I made a note to check yet another word. (Can I find that post-it now? No!)

The next step

The next time I see This Book of a Thousand Drafts (in only two weeks) it will have been transformed into “pages”—that is, looking more and more a book. At this point, there will be a limit to the type of changes I will be able to make. The odd word here and there, perhaps. A paragraph cut or added? Certainly not. Anything that would throw the layout off would topple the entire structure like a house of cards.

I recall that it used to be that an author could make minor changes at this stage—to what we then called galleys—but beyond that, he or she paid, because it was costly for the publisher to make changes.

I’m incapable of not making changes, however, and I remember going over each line carefully, dotting each page with corrections. And then the corrections to the corrections would have to be checked, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, the moment I hold the published book in my hand, I will set an extra copy on the shelf marked “changes.” This copy will also get marked up.

I was, I hope, more cautious with this final draft of The Game of Hope, and will examine the coming pages carefully—because next will be ARCs (Advance Reading Copies), and it’s painful to see glaring errors at that stage. (I trashed an entire box of Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe ARCs because of all the errors.) It’s acceptable to have a few mistakes in an ARC, but I dislike it.

And beyond …

Someone once defined publishing as bringing a forcible halt to the writing process. The publishing process can be ongoing—there will be (one hopes) a paperback edition, foreign editions—it’s never-ending. Paul Kropp once told me that he never really understood one of his novels until he rewrote it for the UK edition. The Life of Pi was first published in Canada, but I read that it underwent massive editorial surgery for its UK edition—the version the world loved.

The transition to digital has made the process somewhat smoother, but there have been glitches. I used to make editorial notes to myself in my Word document, formatting them as invisible. In the early days of the transition to digital, some of these “invisible” asides showed up in the Pages for Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe. And so, in a poignant scene, up pops my editorial: Wouldn’t her doctor have considered a venereal disease? I still remember the shock I felt seeing those words in the text of my novel. The production department lost sleep over that glitch, too, making sure that there were no others.




A newsletter, finally!

A newsletter, finally!

Sandra Gulland's newsletter

(UK author Will Self‘s writing room. How does he even read the post-its at the top?)

I’m about to send out a newsletter — my first in six months! I’ve been MIA here on this blog, as well, the result of moving into a house still under construction, all the while working to finish my next novel, THE GAME OF HOPE.

Those of you who are already signed up for my newsletters know that they include news about the Work In Progress plus a smorgasbord of book-related news of interest to my readers.

Each newsletter subscriber has a chance to win a free book

Plus, with each issue, I give away one of my books to a subscriber.

So: if you’re not a subscriber, sign up here. (You can always unsubscribe, of course.)

Sandra Gulland's author newsletter

And now?

And now, the fun begins with the final edits of The Game of Hope, its cover and design. I’m soon going to be putting a wealth of background information about the novel on this website.

For now, a blog post I wrote back when this novel soon to be born was merely a gleam in my eye:

And, of course, I’ve already started giving serious thought to The Next Novel. :-)

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