Magic or Monsters Giveaway!

It’s February, and that means it’s almost my birthday!

Last year I gave newsletter subscribers a present for my birthday–a brand new, exclusive novella. That was loads of fun, but I’ve been busy with other projects this year and didn’t have time to write a new story. Still, I wanted to give something away for my birthday.

And that brings us to the “Magic or Monsters” giveaway!

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This giveaway is closes at midnight on February 22 so I can pick the winner on the 23rd, so be sure to enter soon!

The winner’s going to have a tough choice to make: Magic, or monsters? One randomly selected winner will receive a signed paperback copy of Bound OR Into Elurien, along with an ornament that goes with the story (a golden feather for Bound, a key for Into Elurien), PLUS a book-themed pinback button and a gift pouch of my favourite writing tea* to cozy up with while reading.

This giveaway is open internationally (please note that shipping times will vary by destination), and is not endorsed/sponsored by any entity other than myself.

Here’s the rafflecopter link to enter.** Good luck!

(Need more information on the books so you’ll know which to choose if you’ll win? You can find information on all of my books at my website, katesparkes.com)

 

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*Glitter and Gold from David’s Tea. So magical.

**Entries available for newsletter subscribers, tweeting about the giveaway, or just for visiting my Facebook page.

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What About the Symphony?

I wasn’t going to post today, but I ran across an idea in my morning reading (quoted in Thrive by Arianna Huffington) that made me think–and that I thought might be helpful for others, as well.

“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along or that the whole point of it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.”

-Alan Watts

Quite the idea to process while I was going over my plans for the day, setting my goals, and generally trying to take steps to improve my life. Does this mean we should let go with the idea of improving ourselves, our circumstances, our productivity (*cough*), or our lives?

I don’t think so. But it’s a great reminder to look at why I’m setting the goals I am, why I’m creating new habits, and why I’m putting so much damned work into making my days work for me instead of letting them slip away.

Because, as with so much of life, it’s about balance.

I don’t have a boss. Nobody’s going to fire me if I’m unproductive in the short term. Maybe that’s why it’s easy for me to let a day go by and feel like I’ve wasted it (especially if I’m in a bad place with social media or other things that seem enjoyable, but really add nothing to my life). That’s why I need a to do list, why I set my top three priorities for the day, why I get my work done before I play.

On the other hand, it’s also far too easy to buy into the self-improvement hype that says you can do anything and everything if only you believe in yourself… which really means you’re falling short if you’re not doing, having, and being it all (and posting it on Instagram, obviously). To focus so much on what we should be doing to better our lives that we never actually stop to reflect on how far we’ve come or to enjoy the benefits of all this improvement.

I mean, so many things that I do don’t seem like parts of a symphony. I meditate, but I often find the process uncomfortable. I work so hard on my writing that the fun bit where I’m making up stories for my own enjoyment is dwarfed by the analysis, the problem solving, the revisions, the editing, the learning about writing craft–things that can be rewarding in the end, but are often stressful in the moment (and don’t even get me started on marketing, bookkeeping, or taxes). I don’t enjoy telling my kids to get off their tablets and enduring their grumbling, and I don’t enjoy getting them to clean up after themselves when it would really be easier and less stressful to do it myself. I don’t enjoy cooking or cleaning at all. And playing with my schedule and tracking results was rather tedious.

Why not let it go?

Because though I don’t always enjoy this stuff in the moment, it improves my quality of life in general.

Meditation is helping me stay in the moment and is helping me distance myself from emotions and physical pain that might otherwise consume me. Improving my writing means a better experience for my readers, and it offers me immense satisfaction in knowing that I’m learning and growing (and all that other crap makes it possible for me to keep writing, because income to cover editing costs is rather essential). The effort I put into making my kids do things they don’t like is helping them establish habits that will help them (and me) in the long run. Cooking puts food on the table, and while I don’t like cleaning, I do like a clean house.

And as for improving my productivity, I’m happier when I’m getting stuff done, and everyone in this house is happier when I’m not stressed about deadlines that crept up while I was procrastinating. I like knowing that I’m doing my best.

…And none of that is me disagreeing with the quote. It’s why this idea is so important.

Because I do get caught up in it. I feel at times like every minute has to be well spent on working toward a goal or doing something productive. I tend to become unduly absorbed in improving my life.

At times I need to be reminded to stop and smell the damn roses. To appreciate the “fog happiness” that my work offers if only I take time to step away from the stresses and appreciate it.

To actually live the life I’m working so hard at.

Who I am and what I’m doing right now are important and worth enjoying all on their own. This moment and this day aren’t just steps toward some end goal, and what I’ve got now is pretty damned amazing.

Not every day has to be perfect. Blah days and down days and unproductive days are normal and fine. But taken as a whole, there’s a whole lot to appreciate, even in darker times.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done to get to where I am, and my life is immensely more satisfying than it was five years ago. I’ll keep working on improving what I can as needs arise.

But this morning, I added that quote to my bullet journal. I put it on the January “memories” page, on the back of my habit tracker and directly opposite the spot where I note my accomplishments for the month.

Because it’s easy to note the good stuff without really stopping to go, “Yes, I did a thing that improved my life. I did a favour for Future Me, and she’s going to be thrilled about it. I helped make someone else’s life better. I did something I couldn’t have imagined doing a year ago. I improved a relationship even though it felt awkward in the moment. I changed my world in some way.”

It’s easy for me to just jump into the next goal, to not stop to listen and enjoy the symphony as it plays, and to become unduly absorbed in the improvements as though there’s some end goal I’m racing for.

This moment, right now, even with all of its stresses and problems, is what I dreamed of just a few years ago. There’s no guarantee anything will last forever. Every symphony ends. I’m glad to have been reminded to appreciate mine while it lasts.

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Writing Process Evolution

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If you’ve been following posts on this blog for a while, you know I like to change things up. Experiment. See how I can tweak things to make my life easier.

I’m trying something new in my writing process that’s working pretty well so far, so I thought I’d write a quick post in case the idea is helpful to anyone else.

Why? Because I’m procrastinating. It’s Friday afternoon, I reached the end of a stage in this writing process yesterday, and the next step (outlining the rest of the series so I know this book is heading in the right direction) is looking rather daunting.

So here we go.

I’m a plotter/planner/outliner. I like to know my characters fairly well before I write, and I like to know where the story is going before I start. That doesn’t mean things can’t change a lot as I write, but it does mean I struggle less with figuring out what comes next, or with later having to cut or rewrite massive sections to achieve good story structure, tension, etc. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it does work for me.* If you’re a pantser who likes to dive into an idea and start writing without a map, this probably won’t apply to you… or maybe it will, come to think of it. Read on.

I usually start with a solid outline. At the very least I’ll have my story structure beats pencilled in based on Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) and Story Engineering (Larry Brooks)–both books I’d recommend, though the former is definitely a faster and more fun read than the latter. For larger books I’m taking more time with, I’ll also dig into theme, character webs, and other helpful stuff with the help of The Anatomy of Story (John Truby). Then I’ll do my scene outlines on index cards, sketching out very quickly what will happen in the scene, and then I’ll start my first full draft.

What I’m doing this time is inspired partly by the Snowflake Method and partly by Monica Leonelle’s methods in Write Better, Faster (which I’m in the middle of right now).

In any case, what I’m doing is a step between the index cards and the first draft. I’m expanding on the notecards, writing out the full scene as I imagine it flowing in my mind, but it’s not first draft quality. It’s just me narrating what’s happening in the scene, throwing in dialogue, action beats, and anything else that comes clearly to mind that I might want to use later. Full sentences, full paragraphs, writing out full scenes and chapters for the full book, but it’s super quick.

The quick draft I just finished is about 26,000 words for a book that will likely come out between 80K and 90K words in its finished form.

Now, that’s still a lot of words. If this step was unnecessary, it would be a complete waste of time. Here’s why I did it:

By writing out the story quickly, I built momentum that kept me writing quickly–and thanks to the notes I’d already made and the planning I’d done, it was efficient, too. Not a whole lot of having to stop and think about what comes next or slowing down to make sure I was phrasing things correctly. I had a 6800 word day on Wednesday (writing for 4 hours), which is unheard of for me. I was writing six scenes a day instead of one.

And now that I have this not-quite-a-draft, I can look it over and see issues that weren’t visible at all in the index card stage, but that I would otherwise have needed to correct after the first draft–after I’d already invested a lot more time and word count into scenes that would need to be rewritten. Or they’d be the issues that stopped me in my tracks during that first draft, slowing me down and discouraging me when that’s the last thing I need.

My hope is that this extra step will ultimately save me time. My first full draft will actually be a revision draft, with the major bumps (mostly related to character motivation) ironed out for me, so this could save me a lot of revisions after the first draft/before my crit readers see the book. And actually writing the draft should go quickly, too, because I’ll have my scenes laid out already. I’ll be able to enjoy exploring the dialogue, descriptions, and all the other fun stuff without having to stop and bang my head against the wall because I’m running into plot and character issues I didn’t see coming.

And as an added, unanticipated bonus, this quick draft has got me REALLY excited about writing these scenes in full and seeing how the notes I’ve made play out when my amazing characters step into the driver’s seat. I’m able to make sure that I’m excited about all of them, which means (ideally) that they’ll also be scenes readers will be excited to read. I can see whether there are laggy bits and correct them now, before I’m invested in them or feeling too lazy to want to change things up.

So there you go. This is the first book I’m using this expanded outlining method on, but I’ve got high hopes for it and plan to use it again in the future. I already wish I’d thought of it for the project currently with my editor. It could have saved me a full rewrite… live and learn, right?

Have any tips of your own that help you save time and frustration in the writing process? Please leave them in the comments!

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*I was a pantser, once upon a time. I’d like to just dive into a story to see where it goes again some day, but I find that for me planning a story is far more efficient, and I’m slow enough as it is. 🙂


I’m Not Dead

I KNOW, I know. I fell off the face of the Earth for a while. And I was doing so well, too.

The truth is, I’ve been focusing my time and energy on revisions and self-editing on a book that’s due to my editor January 1, and it hasn’t left a lot of time for making words otherwise.

So here’s a quick update, and I’ll write more once this monster is off my desk:

-I completed the Whole30 program in November. It did wonders for my migraine symptoms (unless some unrelated miracle occurred), but I ran into other problems. Like not eating enough. The medication I’m on kills my appetite, and having to be super careful about what I was eating (and extra time for food planning/prep), having few snack options, and not being able to stomach big meals meant I was probably way under the calorie count my body needs, especially when I’m working my brain so hard. I was exhausted all the time. And three weeks after finishing, I’m STILL exhausted. And my migraines are giving me hell now, of course, because (long story short) I didn’t get to do a careful reintroduction. So I need to take a good, hard look at how I’m going to tackle this one again in the new year. (To be clear: The program was great and totally worthwhile, but my particular situation hindered me a bit. I’ll do a full post on my experiences with Whole30 if anyone is curious.)

-I kind of crashed over the last month. In particular, I had a few bad weeks of depression/anxiety, which is something I usually manage to keep under control. A lot of it had to do with the book I’m working on–deadlines, huge writing challenges, perfectionism, and low energy are a bad combination. It was also looking at my work from a career standpoint (which led to fear of the future), Christmas stress, feeling overwhelmed by life… My point in sharing this being that we all face this stuff sometimes, and if you’re going through it, you’re not alone. We all crash. The important thing is to figure out what happened and dust ourselves off so we can get moving again (and to get help when we need it).

-But in spite of that, I should have this (($#&ing) book ready to go to my editor on time. I’ll share more about it soon, but for now I’m still keeping it under wraps. It’s challenged me in a lot of ways. Not just technically, but in the hits I’ve taken to my confidence and the fights I’ve had with myself over why it’s been so hard. But early responses from readers have been fantastic, and my Big Bad Editor’s only going to make it better. So that’s exciting.

The less-good news is that it’s a duology, so I need to think long and hard about whether I want to release part one too long before part two is going to be ready to go. Big decisions.

-As for my productivity experiment, I’m sticking to a schedule right now where I’m trying to take advantage of my natural energy/focus rhythms, getting most of my work done in the late morning and afternoon. I wish I could say I was still getting up early and enjoying my wonderful quiet time, but my exhaustion is so bad that I’ve been physically unable to get up before I absolutely have to. I’ve also been too tired at night to do much of anything after supper. Here’s hoping a bit of recharging and less deadline stress after Christmas will help me get back into the swing of things.

-And yes, I’m almost ready for Christmas. I dropped the ball on sending cards (I think I mailed five of them), but I’m just going to have to forgive myself for that. And for a lot of other things. I’m doing my best, and that’s all I can reasonably ask of myself.

So there we go. We’re updated.

And just in case I don’t get a chance to come back and say it: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all the best to you in the new year!


Productivity Experiment: The Next Challenges

Okay. So.

I’m still working on my schedule. I doubt I’ll ever settle on just one thing that will work for me forever. Life and its demands are always changing, and so is the time available for my work.

Here’s what I started working on last week:  Batching most of my chores on Saturdays and just doing necessary maintenance during the week (sweeping, dishes, litter boxes, cooking, etc) to see if I can free up time during my prime focus hours on weekdays (afternoon for me, which apparently makes me an oddball) to get more writing work done.

So far, so good. Working in the afternoon is SO much better for me than trying to wrangle my brain into anything like focus in the morning. Whether that’s because of my weird biological rhythms, the fact that I have a far easier time settling into deep creative work when I don’t have the groceries-dishes-walk the dog-phone calls-emails-newsletters-laundry on my mind, or some combination of the two, I find I can start work and stay focused far more easily if I start after lunch.

And amazingly, the children are surviving if I pause to say hello when they get home and keep working until about four.

This is the total opposite of what I was trying before, I know. As of right now, my mornings are for meditation, planning, reading…

And not doing NaNoWriMo. My other lesson from the past few weeks is that I really can’t divide my focus effectively between two projects, and I need to prioritize the revisions that have to be to my Big Bad Editor in January.

But time is only one factor in productivity, and I’ve started focusing more on the other two that you sometimes read about in productivity books: energy and attention. Because scheduling my day and finding time to work is fantastic, but doesn’t mean much if I’m too tired to do the work (hello, early mornings!) or I can’t get my brain to settle down and do the work even when I have the time scheduled.

There are a lot of factors that affect both of these, and we don’t have time here to go into everything. It seems like most productivity books are a little short on them, too; their focus is usually on how to find or make time, not on how to make sure you’re able to use it when you get there (The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey is one nice exception that deals with energy and attention more than time).

Sometimes it feels like exhaustion and distraction just aren’t issues for high achievers… but we know that’s not true, right?

I’ve already started making some changes* in areas that might help:

  • Meditation. I’ve been meditating almost every morning for a little more than a month now using the HeadSpace app in the hopes that I can train my mind to remain in the present moment, choose my focus, be a little more mindful, learn to let go of distractions, and maybe act a little less like a raccoon chasing every shiny thing that pops up. It could happen.
  • Diet. Not going on one, so to speak, but changing what I eat. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was starting the Whole30 program, and so far I’m sticking with it. I hope that eating better (especially cutting out added sugar) will help regulate my energy levels and prevent the fuzziness I get when my blood sugar crashes, as well as (fingers crossed!) figuring out whether there’s anything in my diet that’s inducing or worsening the migraines that keep me from working so often. I’ll post an update on how it’s going later this week. Spoiler: I’m so conflicted.
  • Sleep. This is why I’m shifting back to working later in the day, at least temporarily. I need to aim for eight hours of sleep per night, and the only way I can get that if I’m waking up at 5:30 in the morning is if I go to bed before my kids. Now, I like an early bedtime, don’t get me wrong. Somehow over the years I’ve changed myself into a morning person. It’s weird, and I’m not entirely comfortable with it, but there you go. But I also like tucking my kids in and being rested. Eight hours is the goal. Ten to six. And I’m aiming to keep it consistent, even on weekends.
  • Exercise. This isn’t new for me. I’ve been walking almost every day (weather permitting) for several years now, and it’s done amazing things for my mental health. This winter I’m going to substitute yoga on days that are too cold to go out to see if it helps with the low energy and winter blahs that accompany the season.

So far, the changes have been positive. I feel good eating the way I am, though it’s hard (and not at all for the reasons I anticipated). Meditation is really difficult some days, and the results are hard to measure. But I am learning to settle in, at least some of the time, and to observe my thoughts without letting them carry me away. I feel good about where it’s taking me.

I’ve got a few other things I’m working on, but I’m not exactly sure where they fit. Slightly less concrete things. Attitudes. Mindsets. Intentions. Accountability. Respecting my limitations.

Those can wait, though, for when I get this other stuff under control.

For now, I’ll be reporting back on some things that are a lot harder to measure than my time use. I’ll be keeping track of the hours I work, but more importantly I’ll be making notes on how much I’m struggling to start work (often my biggest challenge), how well I’m staying on various tasks, and what times of day I hit energy slumps.

Exciting stuff, right?

Do you find that time, energy, or focus is your biggest productivity obstacle? Some combination of the three? Let me know in the comments!


 

*Full disclosure: I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder a little over a year ago (I’m not hyperactive, which is probably why no one ever spotted it). I want to note it here because my medication might come up when I discuss energy and focus, and I want to make sure we’re all on the same page if I’m talking about my results in gaining energy or shifting my ability to focus.

I always hate it when celebrities get tummy tucks with their c-sections and act like the baby weight just melted off OMG, and not disclosing the help I’m getting seems like kind of the same thing. I’m not gaining hyper-focus superpowers, I’m not overflowing with energy, and I’m still struggling with creative anxiety and other issues that keep me from working when I want to. But I do feel like my brain is getting support that it needs, which is great. It’s a process, just like anything else. Let me know if you’d like to see posts on that topic. It’s kind of a sensitive one for me (people tend to jump to scream overdiagnosis and French people don’t have ADD when it comes up), but much like depression, I’m happy to talk about it if it might help someone.


AVAILABLE NOW: Atonement (Immortal Soulless Book Three)

AVAILABLE NOW!

Atonement-Kindle

Amazon.com (available for purchase or through Kindle Unlimited)

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Add it on Goodreads

Among the dregs of vampire society, there’s no safety in numbers.

It’s been a year since the vampires of Maelstrom threw Aviva to the wolves. When her next assignment arrives, it’s clear that her elders haven’t forgiven her past sins. She’s to take a position watching over the clan’s weakest members: the old vampires who can’t be trusted to keep the supernatural world’s secrets. Locked away in a crumbling home by the ocean, they exist in isolation, nearly forgotten by the world. It’s a boring job, an assignment more insulting than her placement with the werewolves, and a terrifying warning of where she could end up if she doesn’t change her ways.

Aviva is determined to keep her head down, prove herself, and atone for her mistakes. But when a group of vampire hunters calling themselves the Blood Defenders attacks the home, Aviva has no choice but to step into her role as guardian and hit the road with a group of misfit vampires who are as much a danger to the world as they are to themselves.

When the Blood Defenders shatter the heart of Maelstrom’s power and leave them with nowhere to run, Aviva and her band of monsters have no choice but to stand and fight to save a world that despises them.

Don’t forget that book one, Resurrection, is currently available for just 99 cents on Amazon! This is a limited time offer, so be grab it soon!

Amazon.com

Amazon.ca

COVER1WITHTEXT

Her gifts will be her salvation… or her downfall.

No one gave Aviva a choice about becoming a monster. Since the night of her murder she’s been forced to accept a new reality—burned by sunlight, dependent on the blood of the living, searching for her place in a dark world she didn’t believe existed until she awoke as a vampire.

She’s still struggling to accept her fate and master her dark powers when the news arrives: rogue vampires are torturing and killing human residents of the city, threatening the secrecy and uneasy peace of the supernatural world.

As the hunt begins, Aviva’s deliciously distracting trainer, Daniel, helps her seek out her unique strengths. The gifts she discovers are shameful in the eyes of vampire society—and they may be the only thing standing between a pack of ruthless paranormal killers and the unsuspecting humans they prey on.

(All cover art by Jessica Allain)


Productivity Experiment, Week… I don’t even know

Yes, I’ve lost track. I’ve also stopped tracking every hour of my day (WOOHOO!) because I feel like the effort is no longer paying off (though I’m so glad I got those insights in the beginning) and because I ran out of pages in my notebook.

So how did last week go?

Weird. It went weird.

For one thing, there was Halloween. That totally happened. And I had a dentist appointment that day. So that on top of helping everyone get into their costumes plus putting mine on (and feeling slightly ridiculous getting dressed up just to answer the door, but WHATEVER) left me less than productive. I did get a bunch of my proofreading done while I was waiting for the doorbell to ring, though, so that’s something.

In fact, I finished my proofread and made my corrections last week, so that pen name book is ready to go tomorrow.

Actually, it’s available now, but tomorrow’s the OFFICIAL release day.

Wednesday was the start of NaNoWriMo, and I started it off with a… what’s the opposite of a bang? Whatever that is. Zero words on day one. Day two netted 1800 words (much better, but not enough to get me caught up), and Friday was another goose-egg because I was way too tired to function early on Friday morning and then there was this thing with waiting to see if a guest was coming over, and… Yeah.

Long story short, I’m sitting just north of 7,000 words and well south of the “YOU SHOULD BE HERE” line on the NaNo site tracker, but it’s definitely not too late for me to catch up.

And I’m hoping that once I get that pen name book off my desk tomorrow (officially), I’ll be better able to focus on the two writing projects that are currently sitting in the corner, staring uncomfortably at me and each other, waiting for the action to start.

It’s awkward.

This morning I made a list of all of the stuff that’s holding me back from using my time well. The issue still isn’t (generally) time, it’s time use. For one thing, when I feel overwhelmed, I freeze and do nothing, which means I need to keep a running list of smaller tasks I can use to get me warmed up. Also, life intrudes on planned work time. Like this morning: I was going to write all day, working on both projects. Then I had a wicked headache this morning and couldn’t do the computer thing, so there went that hour. Then one of the dogs had a sore paw, so I went to the drugstore to get that kinda-sticky bandage stuff to keep him from licking it, and while I was there I got my flu shot, but the paperwork for that took time and then they made me wait for ten minutes to make sure I wasn’t going to die*, and then I decided to get making tonight’s meatballs out of the way since I only had an hour before lunch, and then there was email to send to people who are reviewing the book, and…

Long story short, it’s 1:30 and I’m just about to dive into my NaNo project, which is likely the only thing that I’ll touch today (sorry, revisions).

Part of the problem is that I don’t have the kind of accountability I need to get and stay on task. I hate to say it, but I need a boss. It’s so easy to let myself off the hook when I don’t start work on time. Because OBVIOUSLY I totally understand the things that get in my way. I was there, man. I get it. It’s cool.

IT IS NOT COOL. I need someone to slap my wrist if I’m not at work when I said I would be.** I am clearly not responsible enough to handle myself.

So that’s something to work on. At least I’m gaining some insight into the problems. That’s step one. Step two is figuring out how I can change my schedule and/or my attitudes or ways of thinking to help me overcome those pitfalls.

I’m getting there.

To end on a positive note, I’m about a week into this Whole30 thing where I’m eating good foods and seeing what kind of impact it has on my health. So far, so good. I did not try to murder anyone for their Halloween candy, and I have not starved yet. Food prep and cooking are definitely eating into my time, but I don’t really mind. I actually like the cooking more than I do the eating***, and I’m discovering some very nice new recipes, AND I’m enjoying some great podcasts while my hands are busy.

My family isn’t exactly jumping on board and begging to eat my roasted vegetables, but we’re all surviving.

I may be less positive by next week, when I’ll likely be sick to death of both eggs and cooking. In the meantime, though, breakfasts are becoming far more interesting than they usually are:

Screenshot 2017-11-06 12.56.35

Thanks for stopping by! Let me know in the comments what you’re up to this week and how your Halloween went!

 


*I may have misunderstood the exact reasoning behind these instructions.

**the fact that my work doesn’t produce immediate feedback and that there’s no direct correlation between hours worked and money paid is a real pain in my ass, too, motivationally speaking.

***This has nothing to do with my food or cooking skills. I’m on a medication that makes food generally “ew,” so I really have to tempt myself to eat. The food is really good.


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