Time Management II: Switching Gears


After my last post, somewhere in the maelstrom of fury over my critique of writing while listening to music (:roll:) someone asked me to follow up with some thoughts about switching between my academic writing and creative writing. I’m going to take a stab at that today, and I think it best to think of in 2 ways, one concerned with (again) time management, and the other with a shift in mind set.

Writers are jugglers. They have to be. Whether we’re making their living solely from their scribbling or whether writing is part of a multifaceted professional life, we spend a lot of energy on keeping multiple balls in the air. For some, each ball is a different writing assignment, for others one ball is a novel, while another is a 9-5 job, and another still is some other kind of commitment entirely, family, say, or coaching little league. It’s one thing to juggle projects which are essentially similar (like oranges, say), but it’s quite different to be juggling a novel (the orange) along with tasks which, in our juggling metaphor, feel more like a bowling ball, a sword, and a something big, spiky and on fire. Most of us, whether we have day jobs or not, feel like we’re in that latter category a lot of the time.

As I think I’ve said before, I am not a naturally organized person. My partial solution to all this juggling of dissimilar objects is a brand of compartmentalization. As I am wary of multitasking, so I’m wary of allowing my various tasks to get too close to each other. This is partly because they require different skills, different moods and different approaches. If, during my juggling, I allow my arms to treat the orange and the bowling ball the same way, I’m going to A.) drop something and B.) get hurt. I can’t treat my scholarly writing like I treat my fiction or vice versa.

I recently completed the first draft of a performance history of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I also recently completed the first draft of my latest novel. Both books are about 90,000 words long, but that is where the similarities end. The novel took me a few weeks to outline and about four months to write. The scholarly book took me six months to outline and over three years to write. Is that because the scholarly book is harder work than the novel? No. They are completely different. The outline for the scholarly book took much longer because in order to determine what I was going to write about, I had to do a lot of research into dozens and dozens of different productions. The writing of the book itself took years because I had to study all available evidence (photographs, prompt books, programs, prop archives etc.) from those productions while also going through every available review or article anyone else had written on them in newspapers, magazines, scholarly books and journals. Video records had to be watched in the theatre in which they were shot (as per Equity rules), so the project involved a lot of travel, and since every production had to be placed in context, I also spent a lot of time doing historical work, some of it on countries I knew little about. More than all this, of course, scholarly writing strives for something quite different from fiction. The emphasis is on bringing to light facts and on making coherent, subtle and complex arguments based on those facts.

As MW writers have observed before, research is certainly a part of writing fiction, but its purpose there is quite different from what I was doing. For fiction writers, research is a component of the project, but not the largest piece, even in research-heavy work, and I don’t have to weigh every phrase of my novels for argumentative nuance knowing that other scholars will comb it for things to disagree with. Character and story still rule fiction, and those can be created without any academic research at all, built out of the author’s own psyche and experience. Scholarship is a strictly intellectual endeavor, so emotional and aesthetic concerns usually (not always) get fairly minimal emphasis. All of which is to say that scholarly writing and the creation of fiction are apples and oranges or, to revert to my juggling metaphor, apples and bowling balls.

Since they have to be so different in product, they have to be different in process and can’t be permitted to intertwine, at least not for the kind of work I do. I therefore have to keep them separate, spatially and temporally. I cannot write fiction in my office at school. I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. I can’t switch gears between projects either, doing an hour on a scholarly article, then an hour on my fiction. I need to give myself blocks of time for each, and I usually measure those blocks in weeks rather than hours or days. Yes, I can fiddle and edit in spare moments, but to give my attention to a project properly I have to be able to shut everything else out.

Obviously this does require some planning, though that is often driven for me by deadlines: what’s on the front burner is generally what needs to be finished first. Simple as that. But it will also be driven by my schedule. As I said, I can’t write fiction in my office, and that means that if I know I have to be in school a lot because of my teaching/rehearsal/meeting schedule, I pretty much have to abandon the prospect of getting much creative work done. This is also where giving weeks at a time to one project gets simpossible. I can’t switch minute to minute, but I can just about do it day to day, if I stay on top of it and plan.

If I know I get, say, every Tuesday and Thursday morning at home, I need to be in fiction-writing mode at those times, with ideas ready to go so I can maximize the opportunity when I actually get to write. Those mornings are precious and I set myself specific goals for them (usually 2,500-3,000 words of first draft prose, 80 first pass edited pages, or similar), but the key is often going to bed the night before in the transition, knowing what part of the story I’ll be working on in the morning, shaping scenes or snatches of dialogue in my head long before I start tapping them out at the keyboard. Sometimes it means stepping out of scholarly mode just long enough to leave myself a note or two that I can use when I get back to my fiction. That way I can hit the ground running as soon as I make the switch.

Likewise, to adequately wrestle with the ideas I’m working with in my academic work, I need it to be constantly percolating in my head, and this means extended periods of focus. Whenever I try to dip in briefly, I get nothing done or—worse—write a bit, only to find later that what I have just done is poor, repeats points I’ve made elsewhere, or contradicts my earlier argument. If I really have to go into the project one day and out another, I can, but I get far less done, and it’s much more likely to need a lot of work later. It’s much better to immerse myself in it for a couple of weeks at a time, and put everything else on the backburner.

But, of course, some things don’t do well at the slow, unattended simmer. Family is one of them. I rarely do any kind of writing in the evenings or on weekends. That’s time I keep reserved whenever possible. I may leave myself notes to pick up on Monday, but I try to keep the big stuff for times when I don’t feel distracted by the other balls I have in the air.

Is it ideal, all this hat changing? No. Often I’d dearly like to shelve one of them entirely for a year or more so I can give my full attention to the other, but life—my life at least—doesn’t permit such luxuries. That said, there is truth to the idea that a change is as good as a rest. Breaking from one project to work on another (or, better still, finishing one and switching to another of a different kind) can really invigorate you, stop you from getting bored with a steady stream of similar work. In the end, of course, you find the system that works best for you, the proof of which is decent product generated in a timely fashion. It isn’t easy and, like any other kind of juggling, it takes practice, but with work and focus, you can master it.


18 comments to Time Management II: Switching Gears

  • AJ – great post! Back when I was lawyering, I couldn’t readily switch between writing briefs and writing novels; I needed a physical and temporal separation. I did, though, find that my *methods* of writing rubbed off on each other – I learned to love “drafting” novels (the way that I drafted briefs), accepting a much more rapid but less polished first pass at storytelling.

  • I have a similar challenge. My work depends on scientific research and writing peer-reviewed articles. I most certainly need to keep the style and theme and content separate from my fantasy writing. But I’m not an academic, so my schedule is a lot less flexible than I’d like. Your system is my preferred way of working: a chunk of time intensely on one project, followed by a chunk of time on the next project, and I can’t do that.

    I’ve had to develop a different way of working: science during the mandatory hours, and other projects on the evenings and weekends. If I’m heavily into something for work I’d like to keep at it, but there’s no payoff since I can’t adjust my work hours to compensate for having spent a lot of my personal time that way. (I still do it if there are deadlines.)

    It isn’t ideal, but otherwise I’d never get anything done on my side projects. This system drastically cuts into social time, family time, recreation. It also requires managing my attention, not just my time. I can’t necessarily give my most productive times to the project I’m most interested in. After 8-10 hours working on a knotty research problem, I don’t often have much left for writing fiction.

    Paying attention to when I get things done, when I’m most creative, when I can do busy-work, when to give up and go to sleep – all that is necessary on top of very careful time management.

    Or I could give something up… nah.

  • You wrote: the key is often going to bed the night before in the transition, knowing what part of the story I’ll be working on in the morning, shaping scenes or snatches of dialogue in my head long before I start tapping them out at the keyboard

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve said it before here, but I do a great amount of story creation/planning as I lay in bed going to sleep. I’ve been doing it that way for so long that it’s now a habit. Even with a short story that I have worked out — I’ll just keep going over and over in my head, adding little details, noticing plot holes, fixing and tinkering until I’ve just got to write the thing.

  • AJ> Thanks for this post. I feel like it makes a lot of sense, and, from what I have experienced, I work this way, too. I can’t write at my desk at school either–or at least write ficiton. But I can do academic work. I spent the first two weeks of the year finishing an article, and once I got that sent off, I switched back to my fiction. I do get excited about academic writing too, as much as I do my novel writing, once I’m in the middle of it.

    And I agree wtih Stuart that the time spent before sleep is great for preparing for what to write the next day. I also find the shower a good place to brainstorm–but I live alone, so there’s no one yelling about using up all the hot water! I can think there, and talk stuff out, but can’t write stuff down. So I go over and over and over it in my head so I won’t forget it. And, as a result, I end up having given it a lot of thought and so am ready to write.

  • I’m caught in this struggle right now.

    I started my Ph.D. coursework this semester, I teach a full load of college classes, and I’m also working on my second novel’s manuscript and revisions of the first. I am lucky enough that I can double-dip an assignment for my course with a conference paper i had accepted so that I can work on them at the same time.

    But I understand the time-management logistical problems with going between fiction and scholarship. I am in the fiction mode right now, but I have 7 weeks to finish my paper for PCA, and I have to switch completely over soon. I might get a few days or weeks of respite that I can work on creative endeavors, but not much. I may be relegating my fiction to summers/winter breaks and Spring/Fall semesters to academics. Those are much longer chunks of time than I’m honestly 100% comfortable with, but we deal with what we have to deal with.

  • You wrote: the key is often going to bed the night before in the transition, knowing what part of the story I’ll be working on in the morning, shaping scenes or snatches of dialogue in my head long before I start tapping them out at the keyboard

    Like Stuart and Pea-Emily, I totally get this. I use the prime-and-dream method for a lot of things, from plot points that need twisting, to switching between projects.

    The fiction writing part of my brain can’t work at the lab. Even if the place is dead and there are no tests to be done, I can’t work there. Some things and places are simply too distracting to my creative self. Of course, I can work at home when the dogs are barking and the hubby is coming and going, so I suppose it isn’t distraction in general that is the problem, it’s the nature of the distraction and the atmosphere that keys me in to the project or keeps me out.

    Good post, AJ!

  • mudepoz

    I LOVE this. It explains quite a bit. I also work at a large urban university. No, NOT the one that uses this as a euphemism in Penthouse. Way back when, I was a grad student at this fine institution (Until I was committed here.)

    While working on my research, I discovered a few correlations. The first one was the aquatic endangered plant species I was working on was always located near a train. I immediately realized that that was how it was spread. My adviser told me to check my dates. The plant spread back sometime after the last Ice Age, and was collected by people who didn’t have train access.

    The next thing I noticed was there was a 100 percent correlation with UFO sitings. Of course, THAT was how the plant was distributed. My adviser shook his head and pointed to his door.

    Finally, I sat down at my office desk in the bio sci building and realized that every site was located near effigy mounds. They also were growing with unusual species. More research (before computers, which sucked) turned up that some of these were medicinal, others were used for gaming (chinquapin oak for example, in WI) by American Indians.

    You’ve explained why a fairly serious genetics grad student was sucked into the alien abyss by doing stats at home. Of course, I don’t have that problem anymore. My job is weird enough to be considered fiction.

  • Wonderful post, A.J. I’m another one who does a good deal of thinking lying in bed, or taking walks, or driving. Any time my mind can meander without purpose.

    I’ve had an interesting month with this sort of thing. As I’ve said elsewhere, I have no contracted books to write at the moment, so I’m going to spend this year bouncing from project to project. Already in the last few weeks I’ve been writing a story with Stuart, creating a website for my new ‘nym, and teaching a writing course. My work is changing from day to day — fiction one day, web work the next, teaching prep after that. And I’m finding it surprisingly invigorating. It would be much tougher switching between larger fiction projects, or between fiction and scholarship, as you’re talking about. But as I say, I think I’ll be doing a lot of this hopping around during the coming year. Perhaps at the end of it, I’ll have more to say about switching gears. Thanks for the post. You’ve given me lots to think about.

  • Julia

    AJ, thanks very much for this post! As several people have already commented, I also resonate with the need for physical and temporal separation between spheres. I can’t imagine writing my novel at the office.

    I like your practice of planning focused time for different projects on different days or weeks, but I still struggle with how to priorize different projects because my academic writing is so valorized (and essential) within my field. If I judge priorities solely by external deadlines, public expectations, and the advice of well-meaning others, I could easily end up marginalizing my fiction.

    I have several professional short-story sales, I’ve written a novel that I haven’t sold due to a probably irredeemable structural flaw, and I’m doing revisions on a second that I think (hope!) is solid. But it’s clearly my academic work that keeps food on the table.

    I’m always interested in deeping my capacity to protect and honoring the time and energy I devote to fiction. Any thoughts or strategies to share on this front would be very appeciated!

  • No, I wasn’t PLANNING to enact my post by being stuck in 4 (count ’em!) meetings back to back today but… Apologies for taking so long to respond.

    Mindy, that’s a great comment. It’s true that for all the differences between my two dominant modes of writing and the pressures they put on each other, I’m sure that each one has benefited from the other. In my case, some of that is indirect (the way research informs my fiction, say, or my prose style in my academic work where I strive for clarity above all [!]) but also directly. My Shakespeare studies have provided serious grist for my literary mill, both in my thrilelrs (What Time Devours is about a lost Shakespeare play) and my fantasy (Will Hawthorne is a quasi-Renaissance actor).

    yes, I’m sure there are lots of parrallels, and you’re right to say that my academic position gives me flexibility in some areas that other folk don’t have. I’m fortunate in that respect. Of course, it wasn’t always like this, and–like lots of writers–my social time used to take a real hit when I was working on something. It’s not much consolation, but know that you are part of a long tradition of socially hamstrung writers!

    thanks. As I think David and Faith have said, so much of being a writer is about the time between actually writing, the plotting and musing we do at all hours so that when we actually sit down at the computer there’s something poised to spring out.

    I don’t know what it is about my office. I too can do academic work there (though I still prefer to do serious drafting at home) but writing fiction there just feels wrong. I can’t walk around properly, I can’t talk to myself, I can’t control interruptions… But it’s more than that. I just don’t FEEL right doing it. No idea why.

  • BJ
    I hear you. There’s no question that I do my most fiction writing in the summer when the pressures of school fade most dramatically, though that is when most academics do their scholarly writing as well! Something clearly has to give, or you’re always robbing Peter to pay Paul. One of the downsides of being driven by deadlines is that it’s easy to let a project slide if it isn’t being written for a deadline: i.e. if it’s a “sideline” or “hobby.” I’ve written about the perils of this before but it bears repeating here: for all the difficulties of effectively pursuing two professions at once (writing and your “day job”) you have to fight the impulse to think of the writing thing as merely a hobby. Then it really gets pushed onto the most distant of backburners (I think of backburners like theatres: there’s off Broadway and then there’s off off off Broadway…). Fight this impulse where ever it raises its head.

    Thanks faith. Glad to hear the inability to write at work thing isn’t just me.

    great examples! Very X Files ish. (Or Fringey for the cooler readers).

    Thanks David. Always glad to stir up the old grey matter. In a non homicidal witchcraft sense.

    I realize I have partly addressed this above in my comments to BJ about not allowing your fiction to get too marginal to your life. But you are right. There are all kinds of pressures and reasons to consider your academic work more legitimate than your fiction. (Fine word, legitimate.) This is a tricky one because I think it’s genuinely hard to separate out the good reasons for that impulse from those which are merely familiar or based on dubious values. To this day I have friends and family members who think that I should be focussing on my scholarship all the time, and it has taken me a long time to convince myself that their position is flawed. For me, it’s now about being true to who I am and what drives me.

    As I said to BJ, if your fiction is allowed to be no more than a hobby, it’s likely to stay that way. An old writer friend in grad school told me I had to spend as much time and energy on my fiction as I did on my scholarship. That hasn’t been and still isn’t always possible, but I think it’s a good thing to shoot for. It used to feel guilty about writing fiction when I thought I should be doing something more professorial, but not anymore. Partly it’s just me getting comfortable with who I am and want to be, partly it gets easier to justify teh time spent writing fiction when you are getting paid for it, and partly I know so many academics who have privately confessed that what they’d REALLY like to do is write novels!

  • AJ, I feel a bit bad about your last article, because when I linked to it on Facebook, I mentioned the music, which led to a flurry of comments on the music aspect alone. One of my friends even blogged about just that. (As for me, the experiment didn’t go well, but at least I tried it.) But I’m interested in just the whole “avoiding multitasking” topic, too.

    Evenings and weekends are battlefields because I have a full-time job and I have to balance social, family, and entertainment with writing time. I have really been trying to make writing a priority, but things do come up (e.g. I’m a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding this fall). And my husband is an avid moviegoer and TV-watcher, so I have to decide what’s really worth it.

    Family is an especially uneven commitment, and the idea of being a parent still scares me. My dad had a creative spirit, because I’ve found evidence that in another life he could have been a writer, too. him. Then, in the space of eighteen months, he went from having one kid (me) and another on the way, to having four kids because #2 turned out to be twins and #4 followed very quickly after. In my husband’s words, “We’re not having kids until you get published.” Well, that gives me a few years, at least. And then there’s maternity leave. :)

  • Laura,
    I agree that the prospect of having children is another one of those things which starts demanding that you reprioritize your life. But having them doesn’t have to squeeze writing out. My son was born 18 months before I sold my first book. I’m a very hands on father, but my output since he was born has been double or triple what it was before. I’m not sure why, except to reiterate that it became easier for me to justify to myself working on something that would now be read by other people and which was generating real income.

  • Sarah

    I’m glad to hear that having children doesn’t cancel writing since I would like to have both.

    And put me on the list of people who can’t write in the office. In the later stages of grad school there was literally no space in my life without the dissertation in it. A good friend who was further along advised me that his wife had made a new rule that saved his marriage; no books or notes at the dinner table or in the bedroom. Establish a physical and mental space into which the dissertation can’t go and maintain it fiercely. I paired this with the other piece of advice my mentor gave me, which was “treat your dissertation writing time as sacred. Nothing else is allowed to interrupt. NOTHING. And when it’s not your sacred writing time, don’t even think about the dissertation.” So “sacred writing time!” became my watchword. And it works. Now that I’m juggling a full time academic job and still writing that radical compartmentalization is necessary to keep everything working and to keep me sane. If I can close the literal door on one project it helps me open and close the right mental doors. If I don’t do that I’m always obsessing about whatever I’m not working on and nothing gets done.

  • AJ – Thanks for this post. I found it really interesting, particularly since I’m almost the opposite. I can (and do) write just about anywhere, at any time, at the flip of a switch. I write on the train going to and from the office. I write in the office at lunch or outside on a park bench. I take notes while I’m waiting for coffee….it’s actually kind of ridiculous.

    What I’ve found most interesting in my own habits is that I have to have a distraction to get any work done. I listen to music, turn on the news, or sit in an area where people are talking. I often sit on the couch at night to write, and my husband will be playing “Call of Duty” while I’m editing my novel, and I’ll be totally focused. In fact, he’ll sometimes ask me a question or make a comment, and I won’t hear a word he says. If I don’t have that “distraction” then I can’t focus. My brain starts to go haywire, thinking of all the other things that I need to get done in the day, and then I get nothing done.

  • Sarah,
    that’s good advice about the focus and then total switching off. Not that I do the latter. I can’t. I need the percolating thing to get maximum productivity out of my writing sessions. But I’m not kidding about the issue of having children. It really doesn’t need to limit your writing, though it requires some (more) juggling.

    you clearly are my Kryptonite. If we ever touch, I expect we’ll tear a hole in the fabric of reality.

  • I’m somewhere between AJ and Megan, I think. Like Megan, I can shut out any distraction at work or at home. I can work or write in 10 or 15 minute increments and actually get things done.

    Like AJ, I have to compartmentalize and focus entirely on whatever it is I’m doing.

    I don’t write at work. I don’t ‘work’ at home.

    I maintain to-do lists for both. I break big things – like writing, auditing, developing a plan, time with the kids – into bite sized pieces. If, by chance, I get a couple of hours to dedicate to a single project, great… I mark off 3 or 4 items from the list. Without my lists, though, I’d never get anything done because it would take too many of those precious few minutes to reset my brain and remember what I’d already done or what was left to do. The notes and to-do’s are my memory triggers.

  • Lance Barron

    Late to this, AJ, but I do appreciate your insight. Having no contracts, deadlines, or schedule at present, I am bouncing among projects. I’m going to try setting a schedule based on blocks of time measured in weeks. I’m optimistic that my productivity will improve. Thanks, AJ.