Monday, June 23, 2014

Manage Yourself Past Writer's Block

Let's be honest - I hate time management.  I hate the thought of planning out my days, of regimenting my writing.  I prefer the idea of inspiration, like breaking the rules and ignoring your muse. But there are days when even that doesn't work. That's where time management comes in.  And the acronym CREATE (Chunk, Read, Eat, Associate, Time, and Endeavor).
Yes, you can manage your time.  But it might get messy.  Not like this picture, which is disturbingly optimistic in it's portrayal of personal control.  (Original image courtesy of Stuart Mills on
First, let's recognize that you face pressure as a writer.  Chances are, you don't pay your rent from your writing - maybe you're with your kids all day, or you wait tables, or you spend all day locked in an office answering phones.  Writing isn't your day job - it's another life, and people don't necessarily understand.  They think "oh, that sounds fun," or maybe they ask "why are you wasting so much time at the computer?"  So you have little time, and the time you get is often a "guilty pleasure" - or, at the very least, you feel guilty because there are "better" things you could be doing.  As a writer, you spend your life being stalked by the hourglass of expectation.  (At least that's how I feel...could be I'm just paranoid?)
Story of my life right there...(Image courtesy of jesadaphorn on
So, to help get past the sense of terror that accompanies this stress, I've come up with a handy acronym to help address not only time management, but also this sense of "I'm a writer!  Please, somebody tell me I'm a writer!!"

CREATE: Chunk, Read, Eat, Associate, Time, Endeavor

Yes, I totally made up this acronym to make it sound cool and memorable for creative writers.  There are surely other acronyms for CREATE.  But this one reflects my take on the range of habits we need in order to stay motivated in our writing.

Chunk: Break up your work into pieces.

A poem can be short.  I might be able to write a nice, quick poem in about fifteen minutes.  But the world isn't looking for a nice quick poem.  The world is looking for poetry with something to say.  So to write a "good" poem, I need to write a lot of poems.  One or two might be good, but fifty more might be kinda so-so.  But that's okay.  I can go back and revise.  I can pick and choose which ones I like.  But most importantly, I need to realize that I'm not about to churn out the world's greatest poem just sitting down for fifteen minutes.  Instead, I need to be a bit strategic.  I need to plot out what exactly I'm trying to do, and then how many poems I'll need to write in order to get there.  If I need one good poem - one really good poem - it might take ten or twelve false starts, nine or ten revisions, and then another three rewrites before yet another round of revisions.  So it is with fiction, too.  Yes, I like the idea of just sitting down and pumping it out, but stories don't always come out clean - sometimes, you just have to go back again tomorrow and try again.

This can be demoralizing, I know.  But it's part of the process - one you can plan for.  Rather that heap added pressure on yourself - something like "I need this amazing poem today!!" - it makes more sense to account for quality control.  Go with "Today I'm gonna draft some poems, and tomorrow I'll pick one or two to revise.  The next day I'll see where I'm at, then decide how to go from there."  If you're writing a novel, it might be more like this: "Every day I'll write 500 words.  Good or bad, I'll write 500 of them.  At the end of the month, I'll pick which sections I like and expand on those."

Most importantly, be specific and be reasonable.  Give yourself a word count.  Give yourself a set number of pages to revise.  And give yourself a deadline.  Something like "In the next hour, I'm going to write 250 words" is a good goal - it's fast, it's doable, and it might lead you to just keep going.

Read: Keep reading other authors in your field.  And beyond your field.

Would you trust a physician who never went to medical school?  No.  Clearly, this person can't know enough about medicine.  Likewise, I'm wary of writers who "avoid reading" because they don't want to "contaminate" their work.  How, I wonder, can you know enough about writing if you aren't exposed to writing every day?

For me, I tend to write best when I'm also reading novels by established authors.  I write science fiction - reading good stories with spaceships and time travel helps me focus on the craft of storytelling, kind of "priming" my mind to produce ideas of my own.  But sometimes, I don't have anything good to read - instead, I read some of those junky $2.99 books off Amazon Kindle.  (You know the kind - the ones where the writing is bad and the characters are flat, but you just can't stop reading because you need to know if the zombie gets the guy before the girl can save him...)  These books are also helpful.  Those "annoying" parts of the book help me better see which parts of my writing might annoy readers.  And some books are so annoying, in fact, that they push me back to the keyboard, getting me fired up to write something that will be way better.  Or at least somewhat less terrible.

Eat: Take care of yourself.  Because your brain needs to fuel, just like a car.

They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step - what they forget to mention is all the hundreds of pounds of food you'll need to consume before you complete those thousand miles.

As a writer, you might find yourself caught up in the moment.  You might write through the night, or skip a few meals, or nurse the caffeine like some elixir of life.  But these habits don't work well long-term.  Coffee can make you feel energized, but it can't actually make a tired brain creative.  Creativity instead comes through long hours and years of training.  Like a marathon runner, you have to fueling your body for the long haul.  I recommend fruits, vegetables, and a balanced mix of carbs, proteins, and fats.  (Yes, your brain does need saturated fat in order to function - just not so much that your heart stops working.)

Associate with Other Writers.  Because non-writers don't completely understand.

No, I don't always make it to writing conferences.  And I don't have a stable writing group at the moment (finding one is on my to-do list...sigh...)  But when I'm really and truly stuck as a writer - when the ideas aren't flowing - it's often because I feel disconnected from the writing community.  My family might support me as a person, but that doesn't help if I feel useless as a writer.  This is why it helps to hang out with other writers.  It's not that you ask for new ideas - it's that you relate to each other.  Share your experiences.  Laugh about this crazy existence that centers around words on the page.  Cry because there is no escape from this addiction to literary pursuits.

Beware, though - some folks recommend "buying a beer" or using alcohol to both overcome the awkwardness and "loosen up" the inspiration.  This isn't necessary.  Coffee on a Thursday afternoon with a friend who writes is often the best kind of social support - just a kind of "yeah, that's our life."  Late-night drinks on Saturday might leave you hung-over on Sunday - which not only kills half a writing day, but also makes the memory of those amazing conversations just a bit foggy.

Time: Yes, you need to allocate time to your writing.  And maybe go over time.

Time management doesn't just mean "hey, twenty minutes a day, and I'm gonna be famous!"  Instead, it means being aware of just how busy we are and then shifting priorities to make sure there is enough time to write well.  Like when I was preparing for comprehensive exams, I spent about eight hours a day reading PDF articles about autobiography and the internet, and then the rest of the day was family/teaching/grading - sure, I was "writing" every day, but none of that was for my novel-in-progress.  So I set a date for after the exams when I would get back to work on the novel.  And it's been hard - now that I have hours of "free" time, much of the idea for the novel has slipped away.  It might have been better if I had given myself the ten minutes a day just to keep the ideas fresh.  But for me, there's a problem with only ten minutes - I can write some funny stuff, but it's hard to write the kind of focused, solid text that I need for my novel.

This is where the blocks of time come in.  If you can, set aside big blocks of time each week.  I recommend at least two days a week where you have some serious time alone with your stories - three or four hours away from family, away from e-mail, and definitely no Facebook.

Endeavor: Be Ambitious.  Try Hard.  Dream Big.  And Keep Chugging.

This is where goals come in.  You can't manage your time if you don't know what you're using the time for.  But don't just give yourself a goal - remind yourself frequently.  Writing a novel, I often have to remind myself that no one chapter is super important - instead, I'm looking at the book as a whole.  Having completed NaNoWriMo a few times, I like to set month-long goals for my word counts, going with 50,000 words of drafting (not final draft, mind you) to be completed in 30 days.  But you can go more conservative, too - 10,000 or 20,000 words in a month is a good pace.  By going with month-long goals, I can do more words on some days to make up for lost days rather than feel guilty for every missed day.  Also, I try to be flexible - the goal is words, not genius.  If I write 1,000 words on Wednesday, but by Friday I think those words are awful, I just move those words to my "deleted text" file.  Those 1,000 words are still part of my word count - writing them has still brought me closer to my goal.  Because the goal is writing a good novel - and writing words that don't work helps me better understand what will work.


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