Last week I began the “Back to Basics” series with a post on general recommendations for ways to “Be a Writer,” from work habits to convention comportment, to ways of looking at the world. This week I want to begin to delve more deeply into specific aspects of the creative process.
One of the comments to last week’s post came from New Guy Dave who said “Lately, Butt in Chair has meant sending out novel queries, subbing short stories, and catching up on critiques for folks I’ve exchanged novels on. All writing-related, but not generating any new words. Time for me to refocus and make BIC = productive writing.” And recently I have fielded a number of questions on Facebook and in emails from people wondering how much they ought to be trying to get written in a given day or week and how much editing they should be doing along the way, and raising other issues that all boil down to the same issue: Time Management.
Let me start by saying this: Butt in Chair does not only mean producing pages for the latest work in progress. True, that’s what it means most of the time. And my best days tend to be the ones that are spent creating. But all the stuff that Dave mentioned in his comment are important parts of being a writer. Sending out queries? Preparing submissions? Networking with beta readers? Those are crucial activities for any writer, and they absolutely count as “writing.” Putting your butt in the chair for any and all of them is, in my opinion, a terrific use of your time. For that matter, so is promotional work, setting up events/appearances, learning about publishing houses and literary agencies to which you want to submit work, reading in genre, researching, brainstorming on plot ideas, inputting character information to Character Keeper or Scrivener, taking notes on your latest worldbuilding ideas, working on maps, and pretty much anything else that contributes to your pursuit of your writing ambitions.
I would love to spend every day of my work week writing, developing characters, worldbuilding, and doing all that other “fun stuff.” But the fact of the matter is that I am a businessman as well as an artist. I do a good deal of work every day that has nothing to do with my WIP. Blogs are a perfect example. I not only write a MW post once a week; I also read my fellow MWers’ posts and comment on them. I maintain a blog at LiveJournal and another at WordPress. Now, I have a blog for D. B. Jackson, too. Both D.B. and I have Facebook pages, websites, and Twitter accounts. The upkeep on all of that stuff takes time, but it is very much part of my regular work day — my BIC time is taken up by lots of stuff other than just writing.
How do I balance it all? Well, that brings us to those other questions I’ve been getting. I try to write between 2,000 and 2,500 words each day in whichever novel I happen to be writing at the time. That’s an average. I might get 1,500 one day and closer to 2,700 another, but I shoot for 10,000 words per work week. That may sound terribly slow or incredibly fast to you, depending on your own production. That’s okay. Each of us has to find his or her own pace independent of what others are doing. When I started out, 1,000 words was a great day. I’ve gotten faster. But then I talk to someone like C.E. Murphy, and I feel like I’m a total slacker. The bottom line is, this is the pace that works for me given my creative process, my other professional commitments (the ones I listed in the previous paragraph), and my personal time constraints (family time, household chores, etc.) But that still doesn’t get at the essential question: How do I get it all done?
First, I pace myself. Usually I’ll take care of Magical Words stuff first thing in the morning. I’ll comment on a post or make certain that my own post is up (I try to write it a day or two in advance, because really, I just have to fit it in). And I might also take care of business stuff early on. If I need to set up a signing or discuss something with my agent, I’ll do that early in the day. The rest — the other blogs, the Facebook stuff, the D.B. Jackson stuff — I’ll leave for later. Because once the business stuff is settled, it’s time to write. I’m weird in a lot of ways; one of them is that I am much more productive after midday than I am before. If I can get 750 words before lunch, I know that I’ll have plenty of time to get to 2,000 before the end of the work day. So, as I work, I hit word count goals. 500 by late morning; 750 by lunch; 1500 by the time I pick up my kids from school; 2,000 by late afternoon. Only when I have my 2,000 words do I begin to turn to the other online stuff. Generally I can have it done by dinnertime, when family time generally starts to kick in. Because….
I also prioritize. The MW stuff is fairly easy to get done early in the day, but it’s also a priority because it is a commitment I have made to others. I take that very seriously. And on days when I have posted, I make an effort to respond to comments throughout the day. Still, my first priority is my writing. On days when I haven’t posted, I might let MW slide until I have my pre-lunch words banked. If I am having a slow day — if I can’t get enough written or I can’t it done as early as I’d like, I’ll skip the posts for my other blogs, I’ll stay away from Facebook, I’ll blow off the promotional stuff. If I can’t get the books written, none of the rest matters. That’s my priority. Until my family time starts. And then the writing slides, even if I’m not yet at 2,000 words. Because in the end, nothing I do professionally is as important as my wife and my kids. Priorities.
Finally, I honor my creative process. What does that mean? As I’ve said, compared with other writers I know (Catie Murphy is only one example) I’m pretty slow. I do a lot of polishing as I write, and I usually need to write linearly — I can’t jump from section to section as some people can. This isn’t to say that my way is better — I often wish that I could skip around or that I could leave more of the polishing for the revision stage. But for better or worse, this is how I work. And even that is somewhat misleading. I could get more written if I really had to. When I wrote Robin Hood, I had no choice. I had 5 weeks to write 90,000 words, and so I needed to adjust my process. When it comes down to it, I like my creative process. I’m comfortable with it. It might be slow, but it produces the best books I am capable of writing. And so I respect it, and I allow it to run its course. I don’t push myself to write more than I normally would any more than I allow myself to slack off and write less.
There is no right way to do any of this. What works for me might not work for anyone else. Those are two of the most important MW mantras. And they pertain to this aspect of what we do more than almost anything else. Time management and creative process are completely idiosyncratic. I’m not telling you what I do because I think you should do it. Rather, I’m trying to explain my thought process to you so that you can make rational choices about your own approach to getting the work done. Figure out what you have to do to be the writer you aspire to be. Do you have a blog? A website? Are you in the process of sending out queries, submissions? And how much do you believe you can write each day realistically? Schedule these activities, work out your priorities, be honest with yourself when determining how much your creative process will allow you to write each day. It may take some time and tweaking to get your daily schedule just right. But eventually you will find the right balance, and a rhythm for your production.
I will not be near a computer today, so I might not be able to respond to comments. I hope my MW colleagues will respond in my stead. And I’ll look forward to catching up with the discussion as soon as I can.David B. Coe