Welcome to a new series of posts on this blog regarding an issue that lambasts writers like a horde of rampaging hooker-clocks on a street corner—finding the time to write!
I’m going to be covering a few tricks and tips over this series that I use to produce reams upon reams of pure, raw word slush. The good stuff, you know, that we can turn into proper story. Utilising these tips allowed me to write five novels since May of 2012, two of which are published, a third which won the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize at the London Book Fair (due September 5th), and a fourth which should be released October. So let’s get underway with...
PART ONE - TIME HARD
Preparation is Key
Success doesn’t favour the talented or even the lucky. Get that nonsense out of your head and focus on the key disciplines of the successful writer. Namely: preparation!
Thinking you’re going to be the next ‘overnight’ success and at the top of the NYT Bestseller list come Christmas is a fine thing to think. But it’s a thought full of hope and smoke, you know? I guarantee you that anyone who actually does make that list doesn’t consider it dumb luck or any amount of raw talent. I read a quote once, I forget where and to who it’s attributed, but it read along the lines of this: We compare our own lives to everyone else’s highlight reel. True, no?
What I’m getting at is we’re exposed to these overnight successes—books from first-time authors that sell a million+ copies in the first year, rocketing the author to superstardom and fame. But what we don’t see are the years of hard work the author spent in obscurity, learning the craft of storytelling and actually producing word slush. Sure there are outliers in any industry, but for the most part success comes from discipline, hard work, and time management.
Being prepared to undertake such stringent management of your goals, being prepared to suffer the discipline of carving out chunks of precious, precious amber writing time, is the only sure path on the road to success. You will wade in the river Failure at times, you will want to take shortcuts that end up costing more time in the long run, and you’ll want to be lazy. But wouldn’t you rather be successful?
Oh, and I’m not defining success here as the NYT Bestseller lists. Sure, that’s a measure, but not a fair one. Success here is a completed novel, thus propelling you beyond 99% of people who consider themselves writers. Small steps that begin with proper, prepared time management!
Trick #1: The Life Log – Or How I Learned to Embrace the Spreadsheet
How are you with Microsoft Excel? Passing knowledge? Hard to avoid the program, really, and you shouldn’t—Excel has become my number one tool for time management. If you’re a little fuzzy on how to use Excel, here’s a bunch of free online courses.
A few months ago I wrote a post about keeping a writing log. I’m writing a follow-up post to that soon on how I expanded the initial spreadsheet to capture data such as time spent writing, words p/hour, average words p/month, and so on. I still stand by that writing log. Monitoring my productivity showed me just how simple the writing process could be—if you’re prepared for it. Here’s a screenshot of my writing log now:
Note: my spreadsheet uses the Australian financial year, July to June, to work out averages and what not. So it’s not looking too flash so far this year because it’s only been keeping track of the last 11 days. And at the beginning of July I started a new job, which meant a few days in the red. Back on form now!
But anyway: monitoring productivity. For example, I know it took me only 75 hours to write the first draft of Broken Quill, which came out at 72,000 words. Just over three days, you say? Yep. I know – I monitored. Those 75 hours were spread over 46 days, and as you can tell, I averaged a little over a 1,000 words an hour and wrote for just over an hour and a half a day. A month and a half isn’t too shabby for a novel-length first draft. Then came rewrites and edits, of course, but with the bones of a story on the page, a finished skeleton, the rest is easy. Well, not so much easy as… less hard.
Since using a writing log I’ve expanded the idea into other areas of my life. Most notably: finances. I keep a similar log monitoring my income/expenses. With a fortnightly salary, this is fairly straightforward. If you’re on writer’s money, which is to say irregular and often disappointing, then it can be a little harder to monitor, as monthly income can vary. Use an average or find out from your publisher (easy for those using KDP), what to expect royalty-wise. Again, this is being prepared—the key tenet of time management.
Keeping a log makes sure I know where and when, precisely, my income comes from, and where it’s going, on every day of the month or year. Which leads me to my next trick…
Trick# 2: Automate, Automate, and Automate
If you’ve sat down and spreadsheet’ed your income/expenses, then the next step is to anticipate and actively eliminate the time and some of the worry involved in keeping your finances in order, thus freeing you from stress and affording you time to write. Use your online banking to automatically transfer funds to an account to cover monthly costs such as phone, internet, and rent. Bills that are unavoidable but usually the same amount every month.
You set up a transfer from your cash account, say on the 1st of every month, for the bills and transfer the full amount into whatever account (and you should have a specified one) the relevant organisations direct debit. You know how much to spend, what’s left, and can rest easy knowing that everything is paid on time, always, and that you only have to spend a few minutes every month ensuring those companies are charging you correctly. Being prepared like this removes stress, the nagging feeling of not having enough funds to pay the bills, and leaves you with extra time to write.
Moreover, set and anticipate future expenses. One of the bills that used to take me by surprise was the car registration every six months. Usually about $300 for my particular vehicle. I always had a vague idea that six months was nearly up and then, sure enough, bam! $300 please pay in 21 days, Mr. Ducie.
I grew tired of such expensive surprises. So for the last few registrations, I’ve automated $50 a month into a ‘future expenses’ online account. An account where I specifically transfer a portion of my monthly income to paying bills I do not expect to see for months or even a year. Some examples of the transfers I’ve got scheduled every month:
Emergency Fund: $150 p/month x 12 months = $1800 (everyone should build an emergency fund).
Car Rego: $50 x 6 months = $300
Insurance: $70 p/month x 12 months = $840 (this one is particularly good and let’s me pay the year’s insurance bill all in one hit. Bonus: most insurance companies offer a discount for paying annually instead of by the month)
So as you can see, the funds are there, money set aside from my income over an entire year for an expense that I knew was on its merry way. Sure I’m still spending $300 when the time comes, but this way I’m certain I’ll have the money, all my dollars and cents are accounted for and put to work, so when I pay the bill I do so feeling in control and (slightly less) resentful.
If you can afford it, the real trick would be to save double what was needed, that way you’re always a year ahead on anticipated or expected expenses. Think about it – a whole year without the stress of those bills that seem so far away and yet always arrive too soon.
Although this has very little to do with actual writing – indeed, next to nothing – your mood and desire to write will be impacted for the better by automation.
Trick #3: Carve Out a Slice of Writing Pie
Okay, so we’ve looked briefly at relieving financial stress in your day—an overview, which we’ll explore more in future posts—now let’s go writing-specific for this last trick of Part One!
You have 24 hours in your day. We all do.
How many of those hours do you spend writing? How many should you spend writing?
If you look at my writing log spreadsheet again, you’ll see chunks of red, yellow, and green. The column turns green if I write 2000+ words on any given day, yellow on days between 1000 – 2000, and red for anything under 1000 words. I consider writing a responsibility, a proper job, and one where I must perform. Less than a 1000 words to me is not performing in my role (your average in two hours may be more or less, to each their own) and I know once I get underway I can write on average 2000 words in 2 hours. Find your average, which if you're keeping a writing log will be rather easy, and set traffic-light coded progress markers.
So of my pie cut into 24 slices, two of those slices are dedicated to writing. Preferably two in a row, as I get more done in one solid block than over say four half-hour sessions spaced throughout the day. Not to say you shouldn’t use a free half-hour. Indeed, that’s kind of the point.
Some quick calculations:
24 hours a day:
Work: 8 hours (average work day)
Travel time: 1 hour (varies, of course)
Writing: 2 hours
Sleep: 7 hours
Current total = 18 hours
That still leaves you 6 hours in the day for any other tasks. Kids to school and back home if you have them, meals, cleaning, laundry, bit of TV of an evening or a pint at the pub. You won't be wasting time paying bills, will you, because they're all automated now. Again, preparation and carving your pie into adequate and fair slices for the given task will increase productivity, guaranteed.
A Summary of Sorts
- Success favours the prepared, so be prepared.
- Monitoring your productivity can show where you can improve, what works, what doesn’t, and give a great sense of accomplishment.
- Automate as much of your tasks as you can, particularly relating to finances. Not only will you see where your money is going, you can get ahead of the expenses and plan accordingly, leaving you stress-free during your writing time - then watch those royalty cheques begin to roll in!
- Carve your day into manageable tasks and complete them in order of importance, not urgency.
So I’ll leave off here with Part One of this series. Following posts will cover other aspects of time management, such as daily logs, budgeting every minute, make every minute count towards your future writing goals, write-smart, and a whole bunch more!
Now can you think of any others ways to automate your lifestyle? Increase productivity? What do you do to manage time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or an email.