Welcome to my Writers’ Series on Time. At first this was going to be about time “management,” until I realized that managing time is like wrangling crocodiles while strapped with raw beef. The best we can do is manage ourselves. The writers, coaches and other professionals I’m bringing here to talk about the subject, will hopefully help you feel inspired and drive home my main point: Make time to write. Do it, no matter what. Somewhere, somehow.
We start out this fine Spring Monday with Becky Levine, author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide:
What concessions or shifts have you made (or do you make daily/weekly) in order to make time for your writing? How did this come into play when you wrote your book, The Writer’s Critique Group Survival Guide?
BL: In the past, I was a writer with one story idea and no deadlines. Around the time I got the contract for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, I suddenly had multiple ideas for fiction projects, including one picture book. So, I’m new to the juggling thing, but definitely trying to figure out how to make it work.
My work “plan” is to put the first hour (at least) of my writing day into my fiction. I realized that, unless I put the fiction first, it dropped off the bottom of the to-do list, untouched. On the other hand, if I spend that time on writing, all the other things still get taken care of…somehow! I’m not perfect at following this plan; on weeks where I have more available time, I’ll try and chunk by days—a day or two on marketing/ “life” stuff, and the rest of the week in longer hours of fiction. Basically, I try and look at my upcoming week and figure out how it’ll work best. Then I try and stick to that.
Do you plan your time in any special way, with a special calendar or notepad or smartphone? Or do you just sort of attack the day?
BL: I have to have a calendar. I definitely use it when I start to get overwhelmed. When time starts slipping away and I don’t see myself making progress on my writing, then I get out the calendar and schedule that writing for about a week ahead, trying to get some on every day possible in that week. Then, of course, I have to remember to check the calendar in the morning—not really because I can’t remember what’s on it, but to remind me of this commitment that I’ve made—that I want to stick to.
I did just get a Blackberry, and I love it for its portability. The only problem with it is that there is no great view of the whole month where you can see all the scheduled events. So, yes, I have a paper back-up that lets me see what’s coming all at once. Not an ideal situation, but it’s working for me right now.
How good (or not) are you with deadlines? Are you a writer who loves the pressure, or prefers not to be fenced in?
BL: I have a serious love-hate relationship with deadlines. When I know I need to get something done by a certain date, I do get it done. When I’m close to getting a few scenes written, knowing that I should get them to my critique group by a certain date really motivates me to get writing and put in extra hours. And when I have an “official” deadline, like the ones for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, my focus and organization definitely amp up. I make deadlines.
In fact, with real deadlines, I’m usually early. This is the “hate” part. I never pulled an all-nighter in college, and I had every essay done a day or two early. I’m still the same way with projects someone is expecting from me. It’s not because I’m so good at this; it’s because I hate the adrenaline rush that comes with a tight deadline. I know people who thrive on this feeling, who almost wait for it to come so they’ve got the energy that comes along with it. Adrenaline just makes me queasy.
What is your most effective strategy for getting writing done, even if you’re not “in the mood” or inspired?
BL: If the words aren’t coming, if I’m staring at the page and fiddling around with Twitter or Facebook, I’ll open a new file and just start throwing down ideas. If I’m writing a fiction scene, I try and really focus on what my characters want—it’s often because I don’t know their goals that I can’t get the scene going. If I’m writing nonfiction, I tend to look at my section heads, to rethink the overall organization of the chapter. I find that unless I have the “right” form or structure set up, I’m going to be in problem.
There’s something a few writers have started on Facebook to kick themselves in gear. Someone will announce that they’re writing for the next hour, or until they get some small piece of a project done, and they’ll invite anyone to join in, to identify themselves in the comments. Then an hour or so later, they’ll check in and report their progress. I’ve done this a couple of times, and it’s a bit like writing together at the coffeehouse—you’ve said out loud that you’re going to write, so…you write.
So many people who want to write often use that phrase, “I wish I had more time.” What advice can you give these people?
BL: Writing takes time, and it takes more time to do well. We get very caught up in word count and page count, and sometimes there’s research and plotting and just thinking time that can’t be quantified. We all want to finish our books, we want to revise them and get them ready for submission, we want them published. Focusing on these goals, especially when we can only do so much about that “published” one, can drive us nuts. I realized at the end of last year that I wasn’t enjoying writing. I have loved writing—the act of writing—since I was twelve years old. If I lose that, well, then what’s the point? So I’m slowing myself down and letting myself relish the flow, or not-flow, of words—the process.
Then again, if you catch me on a bad day, you’ll probably find me tearing out my hair about the years flying by and “success” being all-elusive!
What is your top tip for “making time”?
Schedule it. When you want to get something done, write it on the calendar. It raises your level of commitment, and takes away that overwhelmed feeling we get when we try to keep all our tasks organized in our brains. It also cuts down on that time we spend at the computer, fiddling or staring or doing online crossword puzzles!
Becky Levine is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (Writer’s Digest, 2010). She has over ten years critiquing manuscripts for other writers, and almost fifteen years experience participating in her own critique group. Becky writes freelance articles about authors and writing, and she reviews books for children and teens. Becky also writes fiction; her current project is an historical young-adult novel set in 1913 Chicago. Learn more about Becky at her blog & website: www.beckylevine.com