Time management is a skill that every writer should have a good grip on, especially writers like me who have trouble finding the off switch. The off switch is the ability to inhibit your brain’s ability to come up with new ideas. I have this problem all the time: I’m working on a story and a new one pops into my head. I want to do something with the new idea but I don’t want to give up on the current one. As a result, I now have seven items on my writing plate: four novels (an alien invasion story, a supernatural detective story, an apocalyptic road trip and a survival story set on another planet), two short stories (one about vampires, the other about aliens) and a bunch of poetry from my final semester at grad school that await revision.
Some people would look at this scenario and question writing altogether. Others want to keep moving forward but are afraid that the task is too daunting, like crossing a desert with only a cup of water. This is a fact. I know that when I was in college and just beginning to write, I was so overwhelmed by all that I wanted to get onto paper that I would often question whether or not I wanted to do it at all. Don’t worry. It only looks daunting. I’ll show you how to fix it. For this exercise, you’ll need a pen, paper and three colors of marker. Or you can read on without doing the exercise. I’ll let you decide.
First, write down a list of everything you’ve got in the works. Everything from stories you’ve worked on for years to those you thought of when you began reading this post. Now take one color marker (I’ll pick red for this) and put a dot next to those that need your attention now. Use another color (let’s say green) for those that can wait for weeks or even months; I’d say years, but the novice among you might freak out at that. Finally, with your third marker (this one can be orange), mark the items that you want to work on but the world won’t end if they’re unfinished by next weekend. With that first marker (red), you’ve marked you high-priority stories. With the second (green), you’ve marked the low-priority ones. And the third marker (orange) has marked the medium-priority narratives. I’ll use my list to help illustrate if you’re having trouble:
- Alien invasion novel
- Detective story
- Vampire short story
- Apocalyptic road trip
- Survival story
- Alien short story
Now it’s a matter of using the time in your day to get the most out of this list. My day job is tutoring for a few hours three or four days a week, which means that I have a good amount of time to be a productive writer. “Patient Zero,” my alien short story, is low-priority because it’s finished and out for consideration with a few magazines, so I can ignore it until submission responses come it. The survival story set on another planet can also wait, as I know I won’t get a shot at it until way, way down the road. In the meantime, I can do a little bit of research now. Say, an hour a week during my days off (I have a rule that you should take one day a week off from strenuous writing). Nothing too taxing. A documentary one week, a news article about the latest planet discovery or browsing a website on how scientists think humans could colonize space. The point of this slow-paced research is that you’re still making progress in the long run kind of like the tortoise versus the hare. I’ll admit now, sadly, that my poetry work will probably fall in the “do it when you can” category. It sucks, but there’s always going to be some piece of writing that will fall onto the back burner.
Now let’s take a look at the high-priority stories, those pieces of writing that can’t be pushed off until later. The alien invasion novel is one that I started a couple of years ago. Because I’ve invested so much of my energy into it, I want to keep it going, so I’ll schedule time for it every day. The other two stories – the detective story and the vampire short story – need to share time. I began the detective story about a year ago but have neglected it for some time. By putting it in the high-priority category, I’m forcing myself to pay attention to it once again. You have to do that sometimes. You have to make a commitment to work on a piece. The vampire short story is also on the list because I like to have at least one piece of short fiction going at any time (I’ll discuss my feelings on the short story another time). The option that I’ll take with these two is to simply alternate them. Tomorrow I’ll work on the short story, the next day on the detective story, and switch back and forth between them day to day.
The medium-priority story – the apocalyptic road trip – is something reserved for the evening, it’s a mix between a high-priority piece and the slow, relaxed progression of, say, the survival story. The road trip will be done about an hour a night as opposed to an hour a week, and I plan to write it organically (again, I’ll talk about organic writing in a future post).
Before long, I’ll establish a rhythm to my schedule that allows me to continue with my day job without burning out from exhaustion, and that’s a good thing. That sort of stability takes away one headache. I won’t have to worry about cramming my stories into one day. It doesn’t matter that I don’t work on my detective story tomorrow. That’s what Tuesdays are for. I won’t have to stress over my road trip story when I can work on it for half an hour or so before bed.
Take this to heart, especially the “burning out from exhaustion” part. Not only is fatigue detrimental to your health, it produces poor writing. There were times in grad school when I slept for a few hours a night and it showed; I’ve marked up previous drafts until they were redder than the Soviet Union.