Swings, Roundabouts

broken watches
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I’m well-overdue to touch base with my blogging. It feels like days to me, it must be said, and yet it’s getting on for fourth months. I’ve lost a blogging season! So, back when the year was young, I banged on about embracing organisation. How’d that go?

Middling. What I gained on the swings I lost on the roundabouts. My uni work—researching and writing up a thesis for my honours year in sociology, which completes at the end of this semester—stayed organised and has gone according to plan. It’s taken some hard work, with more yet to come. This semester, most of the assessment happens close to the end, right when the thesis itself is due, so it’s been a lot like sprinting towards the mountain to be sure you’re there when the avalanche hits.

But the positive side is that I’m currently ten thousand or so words into the thesis and on schedule.

My fiction writing did less well. At first, I observed the writing schedule and managed to write one short story of 8,000ish words and was glad to have done so. After that, I needed to borrow time for uni deadlines, mostly, and the odd life crisis, and as things proceeded, it became easier to give up the blocked out writing time. (Which, as an explanatory note, included time put aside to update this blog.)

I don’t entirely hold it against myself. I do have obligations to meet and the time has to come from somewhere. I’m the only one who suffers when I don’t write and that makes writing the natural target when time is short. But I do feel… I want to say a wistful pang, but it feels more like that time I tried to pass a gallstone the size of a golf ball.

Still, it’s not all red ink in the writing ledger. It’s important to remind yourself of that, I think. I’ve written 10,000 words of the thesis. That constitutes a substantial chunk of an entirely unfamiliar genre of non-fiction writing. That’s also included taking feedback from my thesis supervisor and rewriting. The aforementioned 8,000ish SF story may only be partway to my original fiction writing goal, but it’s not nothing. There’s still another 5,000 words of the thesis to be written, and 6,000 words of additional assessment split between an essay and script for a presentation summarising my research. Research itself is a transferable skill for writers, as is the discipline of sitting in the chair and producing words to a deadline.

I’ve also been nibbling around the edges of writing. Reading articles and blog posts on the craft and business side of things, and listening to my favourite podcasts, such as Writing Excuses. I’ve jotted down a few notes and ideas. It’s not enough to quiet the bellowing of my “wistful pang”, but it’s something.

The lesson, I suppose, is to organise, and do your best, yet recognise that there will always be trade-offs. And I can still hope to do better.

Directions & Timetables

Pick a DirectionGranted, “directions & timetables” sounds like the world’s dullest fantasy role-playing game. (Though, in this game I’m pretty sure my character class would be a half-orc perfectionist/procrastinator with an alignment of chaotic indecision.) Still, it’s actually a fairly straightforward description of what I’ve been up do.

In my last couple of blog posts I was concerned that my writing had been directionless. I’d picked novel writing as a direction and set out with the determination to tick that bucket list item within an inch of its life.

Of course, at that time, I was very much in the midst of my end of year break from university—to the extent that such things exist while working your way through an honours year, when you really ought to be working on the terrifying Lego of your thesis whether a semester is officially unfolding or not. I was simply procrastinating my thesis and exercising my denial superpower to pretend I could make writing-goal decisions in isolation. Well, ha.

As 2017 shuffled towards its inevitable anti-climax and 2018 promised to haul itself from the radioactive meltdown of the old year to begin its own rampage, ignoring my thesis by covering my eyes and pretending I was invisible proved less and less practical. At the same time, my efforts to pull together a novel-writing project hit a weird, writers-blocky paralysis that was both frustrating and depressing.

I feel foolish in hindsight, because it is my experience that an inability to write is most often rooted in a subconscious awareness that you’ve taken a wrong step, which shuts you down until you walk it back to the point of divergence and course-correct. But, I didn’t understand the problem at the time, and it did contribute its own sour flavour to a fairly stressful start to the new year.

A week or so ago, I began to get a handle on things, starting with the realization that I was torturing myself about two major, year-long projects but doing too little about actually achieving them. I was living the parable of the boiling frog, suffering in the heat rather than jumping to safety. It’s a good thing I’m pretty, because I am not smart.

BullseyeI decided to research goal-setting and time management. For starters, I’m good at research, so it was a nice, non-threatening but practical way to kick things off. Because I’m more a writer than most anything else, I confess I went looking for information among sites offering this sort of advice to writers. My first (very fortunate) stop, was The Creative Penn,  the website of author and entrepreneur Joanna Penn, and from there her YouTube channel  and a particular video addressing how to set writing goals and manage time in the context of needing to meet other time-consuming commitments. It was, without hyperbole, perfectly what I was looking for.

It was so perfectly what I was looking for that I’ve included the various links above in order to explicitly add them to the list of invaluable writing resources that I began compiling here last blogpost.

While Joanna’s video essentially revolves around the old time management idea of filling a jar with big stones first, then smaller ones, then sand, where the jar is time and the various rocks are the demands on your time, she explicates the idea thoroughly, with specific applicability to writing, and considerable and contagious positivity. I took notes. And then I set about applying them to the problem of my colliding immovable thesis and unstoppable writing.

One thing became immediately apparent when I dared to finally turn and face my thesis. It really is immovable. The deadline is not my deadline to alter, and when that day comes, as it will soon, I will either be ready or I will fail. I was obliged to acknowledge that the thesis had primacy, however much urgency I’d been feeling about my writing lately. So, although I’d initially taken Joanna Penn’s advice to mean I should declare writing the novel to be my “big rock” goal and schedule it first, by the time I finished examining the demands on my time I realized the “big rock” was the thesis, and writing would have to fit around it.

It was a cheerless realization, but it was also the course-correction I needed to end my paralysis. Knowledge is usually better than cosplaying an ostrich.

My written goals became:

  • Two-Three Year Writing Goal: Complete and submit a novel.
  • One Year Study Goal: Complete research and hand in a high quality honours thesis.
  • One Year Writing Goal, First six months of 2018: Write three short stories
  • One Year Writing Goal, Second six months of 2018: Complete pre-writing/planning for first novel

Obviously, the writing goal for the first six months of this year appears fairly paltry and unambitious. But I stand by it. This reflects my general state of paralysis at the time of planning vs my need to set a goal that was achievable, that would not incur so much pressure that it detracted from the “big rock” goal of that immovable thesis. And, to be frank, if I end the six months with three stories then that will be progress for me and I will be happy.

My next step was to ask what major, specific tasks needed to be completed in 2018 to accomplish these goals, and when did they need to be accomplished. This, I won’t lie, was the time consuming part.

Writing was relatively straightforward, and I quickly used Outlook calendar to schedule necessary preparation. For example, I set aside a day to brainstorm story ideas so that I wouldn’t run out of ideas during a busy semester. I then scheduled a daily hour and a half writing session enabled by getting up earlier.

For the thesis, I first consulted with my thesis supervisor to get a better idea of where I was and what I faced. At her suggestion, I scheduled the rest of January for completing coding and data analysis, and set aside daily time for that, plus daily time for thesis-related academic reading—something which has suffered a lot during my procrastination phase. For a while there, my entire theoretical framework section was looking to be, “I don’t know, Goffman and Stryker and stuff.”

My thesis supervisor also asked for a rough timeline of when I would be handing in first drafts of the various thesis sections and chapters. By now, I was on a scheduling roll. I quickly worked out the required word counts for each section, and what percentage those word counts were of the whole. I worked out how much time I had between the end of January and two weeks before the known deadline for the entire first draft (that two weeks being my safety margin—I have learned to build in safety margins). From that, I applied the word count percentages to the available time to arrive at how long I could spend on each section, and turned that into date ranges. Et voila! Timeline… which I scheduled into Outlook, with daily blocks of time for actual thesis writing.

Another of my supervisor’s suggestions was to schedule my weekends as actual free time, as I’ve had a persistent tendency to simply abandon recreation while university is running, and it’s had a bit of an impact on my stress levels and health. So I re-jigged my various schedules to do just that. Weekends! The prospect of guilt-free weekends was my first inkling that time management had powers I had not previously suspected… I also penciled in some time for recreational reading, a blessing almost as great as weekends.

So last week was my grand experiment with goal-setting and working to a daily schedule.

There were ups and downs. A thing is hardly a thing in its first week of existence, and a novice planner is never going to foresee everything. When various scheduled items tripped over their feet and fell down, I tried to be flexible, to honour the spirit of the schedule by doing a little of everything I had planned for that time-frame, then returned to the ideal schedule when I could. It worked out.

In the first half of the week I accomplished most of the planning and organization described above. Working to my daily schedule in the second half of the week allowed me to further accomplish:

  • Writing 3,500 words of a new science fiction story.
  • Reading six short stories.
  • Coding 700 pieces of text towards my January coding/data analysis goal.
  • Reading 4 academic articles related to the thesis read.

And having a weekend has given me time to schedule the odd writing-related but not actual-pen-on-paper task, such as catching up my blog, and doing some critiquing.

Again, no one’s going to nominate me for the most accomplished human of the week, but I’m very pleased with that. It certainly represents progress away from paralysis. A satisfactory proof of concept.

I’m quite excited to see how it proceeds.