The longest blog post in the world … probably.
This week I will be mostly talking about making something out of nothing, or as that pertains to my world: time management.
As many of you will remember, my lack of minutes in the day to do … well … anything much was a continuing trope in many of my posts last year. The frustration of not producing any meaningful work while any ‘free’ time melted away faster than the polar ice caps was strong, and the whinging on my blog extensive, as a result. Sorry about that.
However, good news, I think. It looks as if I’ve fixed it, possibly, or at least, bodged the problem enough for my writerly mojo to return. And as I bitched and complained my way through last year, I did realise that I’m not the only one who struggles with balancing their duties to others and their requirement to write. So I thought I’d share the stuff that has worked for me in the hope that, perhaps, it will help anyone reading this who has similar struggles. So off we go …
A long time ago in a galaxy far away …
Last November, actually, Mum was in hospital again, and as I tried to sort everything out, and write, and be a mum to my own son, a good daughter, and be happy, burnout loomed.
Once we got her sorted out, and back home with Dad, I knew that if I was going to carry on writing I would have to make changes, even if it was just changes to my attitude. And I was going to have to make them fast. I’m an old hand at this now. The trick is not so much as to solve the problem but to alter my thinking so I see it differently. This time the ‘solution’ I arrived at was twofold:
- I couldn’t write the kinds of books I had been writing and deal with the things I needed to do in Real Life. I would therefore write shorter, less complicated books.
- It was clear that many folks who read my books enjoyed the K’Barthan stuff best. And I knew K’Barth well. There wasn’t so much time for experimentation right then – so that was easy. I’d write shorter, less complicated stories about K’Barth.
Enter the new series of 99p K’Barthan Shorts. In a bid to discover more details about the ‘market’s’ demands I asked what people would like to see more of. Gladys, Ada and Their Trev was the answer from everyone.
Roughseas asked me to write on about how Betsy, on Turnadot Street, started her Bordello. The answer popped up almost immediately. Meanwhile there was another one about The Pan of Hamgee’s early years on the Blacklist. That popped up reasonably fast too. So I had two ideas for short stories ready to go. All that was left was to write them.
Keenly aware that I can’t actually guarantee myself more than about 40 minutes to write in each day, it occurred to me that one of the problems with my rate of production was that its slowness sapped my morale, resulting in even less speed. So making some steady progress was essential to keep up my spirits and keep going. Obviously, as an authorholic, I am, literally addicted – stopping would have been much more sensible but it wasn’t an option. I decided to try and find a way to write more efficiently. I had a bit of a think and I came up with five ways that I could, possibly, give myself a hand:
- There might be some book production tools I could use to speed up and ease the process – such as writing software or text-to-speech software.
- Planning and plotting a bit before I start would help if I could tie it into the way I write.
- Writing shorter and less complicated stories would reduce the cerebral load (as previously mentioned).
- If I could improve my time management I might achieve more in the moments I had,
- My brain was fairly porridgey and I needed to find a way to re-enthuse it and sharpen it up while avoiding burnout.
1. Production tools
Yes, I am aware this sounds nuts but it occurred to me that one of the problems I face, writing, is that I usually keep the whole plot in my head. This is fine until I’m sad, or stressed about other stuff, or my writing routine is constantly interrupted. Then, I can’t do it. I lose track of who is doing what, and with what, and to whom. When I make notes to help myself I still fail to remember, or at least, I fail to visualise what’s happening where, so written notes are unhelpful. So back in November 2016 I was spending three quarters of each writing session working out where I’d got to and catching up, and then about five minutes moving it forward before I had to stop.
As I pondered how to solve this knotty conundrum I saw a free seminar by a bloke called Joseph Michael about using a writing programme called Scriviner. Now, I confess, I’d never thought about using Scriviner, it seemed completely pointless, but I couldn’t help noticing, as I watched this free seminar, that the way you lay out a project in Scrivener appeared to cover a couple of my big writing problems.
- Finding a way to list major scenes in a memorable way so I can work out a cohesive plot
- Finding something that can remember what’s happened so far, and where I’ve got to, when my head can’t in a way that’s instinctive and at-a-glance.
- Being able to put bits I like but can’t use yet somewhere close to hand so I can just nip over and cut and paste them in and out and remember they are there.
- Being able to flip from my writing to my research easily if I want to.
- Being able to fit more writing into a short time.
- In short, having all the information and prompts I need to write effectively in one place without burying one room of my house in post it notes.
The way Joseph Michael had his demo Scrivener set up, everything was laid out on screen where I could see it. My mental filing system is visual and it works horizontally. My ideal filing system would be a huge long table, with all the work in progress laid out on it. I’d walk up and down the table and see what needs to be done. If I try to file things vertically, in stacked trays or in drawers I forget they are there and cannot visualise what I am supposed to be doing or the shape of my task. I lose things in a pile.
My computer is a drawer – even using WordPerfect to write doesn’t fully ameliorate the impact of that, despite the fact it has its documents in tabs and I can switch from one to another with a single click. Things get lost and forgotten in my computer. Important things. Scrivener looked as if it might be the computer equivalent of a table rather than drawers, and when I found it on sale for 75% off, I decided to try it.
Bonus! Except While it was, indeed, the closest thing a computer can produce, in organising and filing terms, to a table, it was incredibly frustrating to use because it’s very much NOT intuitive in some respects. So I bought the training course for a truckload of money. BUT ONLY because it has a 365 day money back guarantee. No 30 day nonsense. A whole damn year. If I get stuck, I look up the problem on the course site, watch the video, which lasts about 3 minutes and I’m set. I am quite quick to pick up computer stuff but even so this worked very well for me. The way it’s set out is like an encyclopedia you can look things up in, rather than a course of long lessons which you annotate. Thus you sidestep the thing where your mind wanders as you take notes and you leave out a crucial click or step, one that renders your notes worthless and necessitates spending 30 minutes of your 40 minutes’ writing time watching a video, from beginning to end, to sort out where you went wrong. It’s way more useful than I expected, almost indispensable. Indeed, it’s probably paid for itself already to be honest. Bugger. Won’t be getting that refund then.
Around this time, I also saw McOther dictating email replies into his iPad and a light dawned. I could speak my books. However, after discovering that there is no way to teach my iPad how to write ‘eyebombing’ when I say ‘eyebombing’ and having the same experience with many other words like that, I reckoned it would be more trouble than it was worth. Even doing some dictation for my non-fiction book where I used the word, ‘spectacles’ instead of eyebombing – with a view to using search and replace, later – it was, frankly, too much of a ball ache. It occurred to me that the whole process of teaching speech-to-text software to understand my vocabulary, the correct spelling for the word arse and all the rest might take a lot more time than it would save. Doubtless I will give it a go at some point, but for the moment, I think I’ll put it in the someday-my-prince-will-come section of my list.
2. Planning and Plotting
Obviously what I envisioned achieving for myself here is far removed from compiling a comprehensive plot and then sketching the story by numbers. I am, at heart, a pantser. However, it did occur to me that I could save myself a lot of time if I could kick the habit of developing so much backstory that my first scene ends up being one of the last ones. This is how I write: I get to know my characters, get interested in their pasts and before I know it, a new story has emerged. It’s usually a better one but having it turn up a bit earlier in proceedings would save me … well 60k of wasted words last year so, in short, the entirety of last year’s output (some of those words will be rescued or recycled but not all 60k).
I heard about a free seminar promoting a course called Story Engines. Story Engines sounds brilliant, but I can’t afford it. It didn’t help that there was only a short window, during the zenith – or is that the nadir – of the Christmas and post Christmas bankruptcy period. Why does everyone who runs a $500 closed course think a good time to open it up is December when everyone is skint? Sorry, I digress. The seminar was pretty good and opened my eyes to the kinds of questions I should ask myself. Questions which I thought I was asking already but clearly haven’t been. However, I could only afford one course and I thought that, possibly, I would work out more of the plotting stuff on my own than I would the workings of Scrivener. And the Scrivener course cost less. A lot less.
And I still have about 335 days in which to decide whether or not I like it! So I bought it.
3. Writing shorter
An absolute epic fail. For example, I’ve binned 20k of the ‘short’ about how Betsy’s bordello opened and I’m now just bubbling under 29,000 words into the new one. I think I may squish it into about 40,000 but it could run to 60,000. On the upside, I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. Yeh. Thank you, Story Engines free training and lovely easy-to-see-what’s-going-on Scrivener layout. The magic is still happening, the picture is slowly de-pixilating and sliding into focus and the process is fun again. I also have a very much clearer idea of how Space Dustmen, the new series I’m working on, is going to go, and I’m really enjoying making notes and thinking about ideas. The characters are more focussed and yeh, things are happening there, too. Oh and there’s a non-fiction book.
On the writing shorter books front, then, null points. But on the writing, generally, a massive booyacka!
4. Time Management
We talked about the minuscule size of my writing window. How to make those minutes count then?
Scrivener was surprisingly useful and the plotting was helping but it was only a partial success. My efforts to write were still resulting in redundant words. Cf that 20,000 odd I mentioned just now and the other 40,000 from last year. Even though I will probably use three quarters of them, tweaked, a bit later in their prerequisite stories it was fairly essential that I did something to increase my rate of production and increase the suitability for immediate use of the stuff I produced.
So far, I’d some ideas plotted that I was really chuffed with, I’d laid out the basic chapters I thought I was going to write in Scrivener, added some notes, done the cards etc. But I needed more.
Somewhere, I read that comparing notes with other writers and posting your progress daily can really motivate you so I started a thread on a forum I visit. I’d also read that doing sprints works well for many people. You set a timer for twenty minutes and write until it goes off, have a 5 minute break and then rinse and repeat. I thought I’d see what I could do with that. I reckoned if I spent the first twenty minutes planning the scene and maybe writing a bit, and then the next twenty, going for it, I might get somewhere. No distractions, nothing, just writing the rest. So that day, I started my thread and explained what I was going to do. Then I turned off the internet, opened scrivener, sat down with the pinger set to twenty minutes and off I went.
That was a fucking eye opener I can tell you.
First sprint: 400 words, second 1000. Smecking Norah! Four weeks later, I have 28,800 words down. Even a hard, pulling-teeth-style sprint nets me 400 words. Just three of those sprints, ie an hour and a quarter given over to writing, and we are looking at 1,200 words, minimum. My record in one 20 minutes is 1,700. Typing. Every morning I can wake up knowing that, even if I only have half an hour to work that day, I can get a few hundred words done. Few things boost a writer’s spirits better than being productive.
I love the sprints and I love the camaraderie of chatting on the thread where we encourage each other and compare results. Definitely a really effective strategy, that one.
5. Avoiding staleness: saying, ‘bollocks’ to social media and making it quality time
With the sprints, Scriviner and even the plotting going well. I wondered if I could work on my freshness of approach. What I mean is, trying to persuade my times of maximum brainpower to coincide with the times I had available to write.
After a lot of head-scratching it occurred to me that this writing game is a bit like a relationship in many respects. Sometimes, with dating, less is more. Three hours of quality time are worth many more hours of half cock time spent not really connecting that just make the whole thing go stale. I realised that, when quality writing time was thin on the ground, I was spending hours on social media while I did other things looking at emails, or generally staring at my iPad and phone to try and keep myself connected to the electronic ether and with that, somehow, to my writing. Even sitting at home in the evening watching tv, or while I was cooking, or some other situation in which I could never hope to produce any meaningful content for my books I would be gazing soulfully at the screen convincing myself it would help.
While, on one hand, all this screen time made me feel as if I was maintaining the connection, on the other it fogged it, made me feel as if it was sapping my creativity somehow. And the more in touch with it all I tried to be, the more time was sucked into this faux ‘keeping in touch’, and the less time I spent actually writing. Across my wider life, writing was all I was doing … Oh and panicking about having no time. I did a lot of that. So as well allowing my brain to be gloopified by the wrong kind of screen time, I was starving it of stimulation. No fuel. Poor brain. How could I expect inspiration?
More head-scratching, and then I decided to try and make all the time I had count, across the board, not just in writing but in everything. So I limited social media and marketing time and added other things to my day, experiences, like coffee with a friend, a walk, reading, listening to music, shopping, eyebombing, etc. I also tried switching off the computer at six pm and not turning it on again until the next morning. I still checked my emails and social media first thing as I sat in bed with a cup of coffee. However, I started writing a to do list for the day at the same time. Then when I sat down at the computer after the school run it was easy to reorientate myself. I started experimenting with using sprints to write emails and social media posts. I listed things I needed to look at, set up a sprint to do it in and then stopped when the bell rang. I found I could achieve exactly the same amount of interaction in a fraction of the time. In the evenings, in front of the telly, I stopped checking Facebook on my phone and started knitting socks. Um … Yeh.
The results of this have been amazing. I have way more creativity. When I started this, a month or so ago, there was only really room in my head for one project. After a week, I started having ideas about a project I’d shelved because it was too complicated. After two weeks the short had turned into a novel. After three, a non fiction project popped up. It looks as if I may finish a novel this year. One that I only started writing in earnest four weeks ago. It is as if this simple act of giving my brain time to rest has jump-started my creative mojo. Yes I still get tired, I still get sad about my parents, I still have the odd week of PMT when I can’t meaningfully achieve anything but I also feel fulfilled and fantastic because I am creating stuff – and when I feel like that I create more stuff – and even when it’s not books, it’s very comfortable socks!
So what gave I learned here that might help anyone who has waded through to the end of this? D’you know, I think probably this:
- Being open to new ideas and open-minded about trying new things can result in solutions you never believed possible. I am really surprised at how helpful Scrivener is, for example, and would never have tried it had it not been flagged as a godsend by a couple of the book selling gurus I follow.
- Looking at problems from different angles can really help to solve them.
- A writer’s brain is just like a computer, you need to put stuff in to get stuff out – although unlike computers, I find that putting rubbish into a brain doesn’t necessarily diminish output quality. But the biggie is input. Input has to happen for output.
- Avoid getting stale.
- Keep trying! I’m beginning to think that the people who achieve stuff are the folks who never give up. And I’ve discovered this by achieving stuff (in my own very small way but it feels big to me) because I can’t give up. So I’m beginning to think that, within reason, if you try to achieve something for long enough, and work hard enough at it, something WILL happen, even if it’s not what you were expecting. Or to put it another way, when life throws you lemons then yes, take time, lick your wounds, nurse your bruises, regroup … and make lemon meringue pie.