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.

 

7 Visits From the Ghost Of Writing Past

Batman

You can’t swing an antique typewriter on the Internet without hitting a writer giving advice to their younger self.

But it’s not a purely pointless cliche. Writing is a skill-set as much as it is a Mysterious Talent Breathed Into Our Ears By Angels. Stick with it and you learn. What you learn is idiosyncratic but might be of use to younger writers who are stumbling in ways similar to your own hilarious youthful pratfalls.

Heck, reflecting on what you think you might have learned can actually be the moment you learn it.

Writers digest considered it an activity worth putting into a writing exercise.

Dearyoungme.com thinks it merits its own social media site.

And Oneyearnovel.com recently used it explicitly to advise young up-and-comers.

Tl;dr… I’m jumping on that bandwagon.

So, without further ado, seven things I’d tell younger self if I met him and he let me get a word in edgeways…

  1. Don’t wait. Second post on this blog pretty much explains this one. If you love writing, prioritize it. I chose a more “practical” route, and it vanished like a soap bubble.
  2. Write a little every day. Don’t tell yourself you’ll put off writing until you have “enough time” to devote to it. You’ll never have much more time to write than you do right now. And you need the ongoing routine and practice to improve. So write even, a little, as often as you can.
  3. Finish things. Again, it’s how you learn. I used to abandon a story whenever it went awry. Took me ages to learn I was mucking up my starts because I hardly ever saw them in the context of a completed story where it was more obvious that I was generally starting stories too early.
  4. Perfect is for saps. I say “awry,” but I used to abandon stories because I knew I couldn’t make them perfect. I used to not submit stories because I knew they weren’t perfect. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” You’re as good as you are, and you’ll get better if you don’t give up for want of perfection.
  5. Don’t worry about rules. Patricia Wrede says this best on her Six Impossible Things blog.
  6. Realize that doubt is just weather. God I’ve struggled with self doubt. Given up on writing. Given up on individual stories. I’ve gone back to stories that wracked me with so much doubt that I pitched them into the bin, and found stuff in them that was so good it surprised me. Self doubt isn’t truth: it’s weather. It will pass. Wait it out.
  7. Mind your health. I didn’t. But writers aren’t disembodied brains, and you will eventually sabotage everything you do if you neglect your physical well-being.

So, that’s my seven. Happy to hear yours below…

Climbing the Wrong Ladder: The Worst Mistake A Writer Can Make

ladders
Photo credit: hiphopmilk via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I’m probably a little early in my mastery of writing to be doling out much in the way of advice. Yet I’m also an experienced human, and that can teach the odd lesson worth sharing. And my experience includes the worst mistake someone who longs to write can possibly make: I stopped.

I started writing as a young teenager and I was quite earnest about it. I read all the books. Did writing exercises. Read and re-read positive exemplars both literary and genre. Studied the markets. Got all the newbie mistakes out of my system. From eighteen I was getting the odd personal rejection from the major SF magazines, and that year was inordinately cheered to receive an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Then I sold my first two stories, to the Australian SF magazine Aurealis, and began to grow some confidence.

Prior to that I’d not been over-endowed with confidence. Writing was not well-regarded or well-understood in my family. My father once sat me down to gravely explain that writing was lying and real men didn’t lie. He was suspicious of all the reading involved and saw education as the root of all sorts of degeneracy. I was stubborn and refused to believe him, but that sort of thing seeps in. My writing dreams far outstripped my cultural capital and my cultural competence in the literary domain, and that is not a recipe for confidence.

When, not long after my first sales, I got a job that pleased me in an organisation that suited me, it seemed to me that writing couldn’t come to much anyway and I’d be better off putting my energies into the job. Practical, secure, well within my capabilities.

I stopped. For years.

Everyone’s heard some variant of the axiom Stephen R. Covey rendered as: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” It could not be truer if it were uttered by a burning bush.

For many years I felt an almost constant itch to write and just as constantly I forced it down and poured my energy into my job. Sometimes I essayed a little writing at night, but I was usually exhausted and unmotivated and it was exceedingly rare for anything to result. To evade the resulting cognitive dissonance I assured myself that the time for writing would come. My writing resided in a perpetually shifting future: when things settle down at work, after I finish this training course, after the next busy period, when I get well—always the day after tomorrow and never today.

And then, after many years, the organisation decided it had no further use for me and my job was gone. I’d climbed the wrong ladder and then discovered it has been an imaginary ladder all along.

Suddenly unemployed, it became achingly clear to me that I’d allowed self-doubt and social convention projected through the skewed lens of my father’s fear, exacerbated by years of my own diligent excuse-making, to take me far from the thing that I actually loved doing. When I returned to writing and found all my old skills rusted and my old knowledge redundant and the time left in my life for achieving dreams so foreshortened, I realised the awful magnitude of the mistake I’d made. Oh, I rolled my sleeves up, recommitted to my writing, and got to work, and I’ve managed to sell a story since and that is magnificently heartening. Nevertheless, I am never far from regret.

I’ve since enrolled at university, studying towards a BA (sociology/criminology), and I’m doing very well, thank you. But I’ve kept writing. A portion of each morning is allotted to writing and I defend that time. I’ve found ways to incorporate writing into my study. I do what I can to make sure that writing stays with me in the now and never drifts off into some soft-lit future that never comes.

And, when people ask me for writing advice as they do from time to time, I’ve urged only that they tolerate no delay from themselves. There is a need to work day jobs to house, feed, and clothe yourself, yes. But never let life’s sleight of hand make your dreams disappear while your eyes are elsewhere. Do what you have to do. But do it on the right ladder.