GMB Chomichuk and Jonathan Ball (interview), Part 1

GMB Chomichuk (writer, teacher, mixed media artist, graphic novelist and proud Winnipegger) agreed to an interview only if I allowed him to also interview me — so this is Part 1 of a two-part, twinned interview (the second part will post next week).

Chomichuk won the Manitoba Young Writers Award when he was 15. He won the Manitoba Book Award for Best Illustrated Book in 2011, and again in 2015. His graphic novel series The Imagination Manifesto was nominated for Best Canadian Graphic Novel in the 2012 Aurora Awards. He is the founder of Alchemical Press and is always on the lookout for literary oddities. You can follow him on twitter @gmbchomichuk and see some of his work in progress at www.comicalchemy.blogspot.com.

His latest books are the picture book Cassie and Tonk (McNally) and the graphic novel Infinitum (McNally | Amazon).

Jonathan Ball: Why did you decide to start Alchemical Press?

GMB Chomichuk: I had been getting serious about the idea of visual story telling. I had a conversation with a friend who said that a people need to sell their strengths and buy their weaknesses, and on the same day got a call from a producer asking me to come and talk about doing a comic adaptation and some set design. When I was asked to use the likenesses of the cast for the comics, I figured doing so under the umbrella of a legal entity would be prudent. It just seemed the time. All ideas have their time, and I guess this was the time for Alchemical Press. Lots of things were changing in my life, and alchemy is change.

How does a poet/horror writer make a movie and sell it to The Comedy Network?

Ball: Don’t say horror, or I’ll never get published again. I used to say something else, like my work is “struck through with Gothicism” or “darkly fantastical” (I owe Hiromi Goto for that one). Since I am what people call, redundantly, a “literary writer,” I have to feign a pretentious investment in the marketing term “literary fiction.” Although to be honest I have gotten bored with that stance and started to call myself a “horror writer” in the press recently, even when not talking about horror.

I believe in the value of always doing something. I’ve been writing seriously for about 15 years at this point, which is about how long you have to work in order to reach Square One. The film you’re referring to, Spoony B, I decided to make a number of years ago, in order to learn the basics of filmmaking. I figured if I wanted to do some screenwriting, I should learn to think like a director, and the best way to do that was to become one. So I cobbled together about $500 and thought, “What kind of film can I make with only $500?”

I knew I couldn’t afford lab fees, so I developed all the film by hand in buckets and transferred it from my kitchen wall with a digicam. I put my friends in it and shot it as a silent film, like an old Keaton or Chaplin film, so that I didn’t have to record sound, because I couldn’t afford to record the sound well.

It turns out I have a small bit of talent for being a director (very small!), because The Comedy Network bought it almost immediately. Really, it was a happy accident that the film ended up being any good, and then Matthew Etches, who was the distribution coordinator for the Winnipeg Film Group managed to sell it, it was one of the last things he did before he quit that job. In many respects, I don’t know how it was sold, basically it sold because the Winnipeg Film Group sold it for me. The rights are available again now, if somebody wants to license it from the WFG!

What are your goals for Alchemical Press, and how do you see it as different from other presses?

Chomichuk: Alchemical Press is not a traditional press, it’s a story engine. We are a mercenary strike force of creative people that use art and words to fight our battles. We are a collective of innovative storytellers. We publisher the work of others, and we publish our own in collaboration with Absurd Machine Films and Vagabond Brigade, and Electric Monk Media web services, which allows us to be peer-reviewed while retaining creative control.

Too often peer review means “Give someone else the rights and revenue potential but keep the credit.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the book industry, but they do their thing, we do ours. Alchemical Press is a hybrid model that works with the direct sales market of the comic stores and the returnable market of the book seller, and the online make-it-up-as-you-like markets of the Internet.

Poetry, Prose, Pictures, Collage, Video, Digital Art. We aren’t interested in you doing things our way, we’re interested in getting things done.  If people have an idea worth sharing, we want to help.

Our goals are to get talented people the exposure they deserve. To allow those who are working with the medium of story for the medium of story, (Guys like Dave Ryan and his War of the Independents) to get their ideas out there and inspire people.

What’s your creative process, from idea to gestalt? Concept to page? Tell me your secrets I’ll tell you mine.

Ball: I never go out in search of ideas, because I have so many, a huge backlog of projects I will never have time to complete. Some of them are great projects too. But when I get an idea I stop whatever I’m doing and roll the idea around for a while. I make a note or two if I’m concerned about forgetting something, just a good sentence or two. Then I just let the idea retreat and go back to whatever I was doing.

The idea has to compete for survival amongst the thousand other ideas. If I find myself sticking with it, turning my mind to it over and over again, making more notes, and not letting it go, then eventually I’ll schedule some writing time to work on it. It might be years from when I think of an idea to when I write word one.

After I have a first draft, I produce a summary/outline based on that draft. Then I make all my major editing decisions based on this outline. I’ll cut pages, note where to add things, restructure, and so on, based on the outline. Then I’ll retype the entire document, rewriting as I go. I don’t go back and edit the original computer file, I type a new one so that I don’t feel bound to the first draft in any way and feel freer to rewrite rather than merely revise.

I hope to abandon this practice soon, because it is so time-consuming, but it works great so I can’t. I’m getting close to where I think I can let go of the practice, however. I started using Scrivener (Mac | Windows), and it separates the formatting from the text in a sense (because you have to output and finalize the formatting in Word, since the publishing industry uses Word). So far, I feel like mentally I’m not bound to the text when I play around in Scrivener, so maybe it will finally let me kill off this unproductive but useful practice.

After the second draft every draft is a revision unless there are some major issues. A structural edit might also entail changing things entirely, like turning it from a poem into a short story, or cutting out whole scenes and chapters and characters or whatever. Unless somebody has requested the manuscript, I think about where to send it when I start the revision process (usually with draft three, although I often complete up to eight or ten substantial drafts). Then it’s just a matter of finishing it, sending it wherever, and getting started on the next thing.

I used to work on a lot of projects at once but wasn’t accomplishing much. Now I try to stick to no more than two, switching when I get stuck on one.

What about your process? If I remember correctly, The Imagination Manifesto was at one point a novel called Strangeseed. So how did the idea develop, and go from being a prose work to a graphic novel?

Chomichuk: The Imagination Manifesto (McNally | Amazon) began as a prose novel that was just too visual to remain as text alone. Because my writing style often references allusion and mythology as a literary device, but sometimes I’m talking about figures from mythology, I realized that the book contained too many things that seemed like metaphors, and too many things that seemed like descriptions which the reader can misattribute.

If someone is described as like a snake, but they look human, you know it’s just an adjective, but here the women who looks like a snake is a snake-woman. I had started getting a bit of work in film, and the storyboard needs of some projects really solidified, at least for me, that this part of the tale had to be illustrative. There are many chapters of the tale that will contain long bits of prose, but only when words say it better than pictures and vice versa.

It sounds a bit silly as I write it, but most of my ideas come from dreams. I believe firmly that we can go looking for things when we sleep. Our memory is built up from patterns, but dreaming really lets one experience their own lives in a unique way. If something follows me back from a dream, I take notice, and try to give it somewhere to live. Sometimes as a character, sometimes as a setting, sometimes as a line of dialogue. I do my best to give my dreams a good home.

Ball: I’d like to hear about your process also insofar as how you choose or develop projects. I know you’ve turned down work in favour of edgier fare, and have often turned offers to “work” into offers to be a creative contributor — what’s your attraction to edgier, unconventional work, and why does having some degree of creative control mean so much to you, even when you’re working as a gun-for-hire?

Chomichuk: Collaboration is the point for me. The whole idea of alchemy is the process of mixing strange ingredients and intents and creating something new and vibrant.

When I do work-for-hire art I offer different pricing. One price is for the work I do with the understanding that I keep and control the original art and the right to remix the original images into new work as I see fit. The other price (much higher) gives the client control of the original art. What this usually does is open a dialogue about what art should be and the strengths of collaboration versus outright control.

When everyone is invested in a project, both creatively and financially, the discussion orders itself around the work, and the story, rather than who is in charge. There is a lot of ego floating around in this business, and I find that if/when I set the terms like this, then people I would not enjoy working with for the long haul aren’t the ones interested in working with me anyway.

A person’s portfolio should reflect the work they want, not just the work they’ve done. We all start somewhere, but you need to be assertive about what you want for yourself from any creative endeavour. I want creative autonomy when I work with someone, and I’m interested in working with people who want the same things.

Read Part 2 of my interview with GMB Chomichuk!

Focus on Today, Not on the Book: Using Scrivener’s Project Targets

I do all my writing in Scrivener (Mac | Windows) now. It’s a powerful, wonderful program, but it also has a steep learning curve, and so I want to show you one of my favourite features.

A very simple thing, but incredibly useful, especially if you are working on a long project, something that is overwhelming and that you need to break down into small, manageable chunks you can work on day by day.

It’s very easy to worry about the whole project and lose focus on what you have to do today, right now. Scrivener has a great function that helps you do this, which is called Project Targets.

In this screenshot video, you can see me (over)explain this simple but powerful feature:

I hope you can see the power of this … Scrivener is calculating my work for the day!

I actually went and dumped all my critical writings into that file, and I already have almost 150,000 words of decent stuff (not counting a bunch of other stuff). I would never have known that I already have enough for a book of critical writing if it wasn’t for this feature. You can just drag and drop stuff into a project, whereas before I really had to do some math or suture stuff in a Word file, to figure this kind of thing out.

Am I going to pare it down to a book of critical writing? I don’t know. Publishing a book of critical writing seems somehow too egotistical. But I could! I set a new goal of 250,000 words. When I have around 3-4 books worth of good material, then maybe I will trim it down to a single decent book.

Me and Scrivener: A Love Story (Coda)

I love Scrivener (Mac | Windows). For many, many, many reasons. I recommend it to everyone.

But it is NOT easy to learn.

I found that, while I could use it right away and it was useful immediately, even in the trial version, it was frustrating to feel like it could do WAY more for me, if I could just master its ins and outs.

I then thought of a great business idea, for once in my life … I would invest my time in learning Scrivener, and make a series of videos (like the one above, but way better) and then create a whole online course about how to use Scrivener! I would sell it and make some serious money and become a Scrivener king!

As soon as I had this idea, I discovered that someone else already did it, in a course called Learn Scrivener Fast. I purchased his course (since it had a money-back guarantee), thinking I would scope out the competition and then outdo the sucker.

Unfortunately, the course is great. So I’m not rich. And I didn’t ask for my money back, so I am actually poorer. But I know how to use Scrivener!

If you are a serious writer, I recommend Scrivener (Mac | Windows). I recommend Learn Scrivener Fast. I love them both. I became an affiliate of both, so if you want to support this site and you intend to purchase either, please do so through the links on this page.

Yes, both are investments in time and money, but if you are serious about writing then you should already be in the habit of investing your time and money to become a better writer. The software is powerful and has amazing potential to revolutionize your way of working.

Maybe you don’t care about that, because what you do already works for you. If that’s the case, then don’t worry about Scrivener. You might want to play around with it, but if you are happy with what you’re doing then you should focus your writing time on writing.

I wasn’t. I needed, among other things, software that would let me work on massive writing projects, and non-linearly. Scrivener is that software.

But I was wasting my time learning it. As pricey as the Learn Scrivener Fast course seemed, it was ultimately money WELL spent. I tried the books about the software, but they weren’t for me. It is just so much easier to grasp software, for me, from videos than from pages. Normally, I prefer learning from books, but not for software training, and I figured with a money-back guarantee it was safe to give it a shot.

However, if you DO buy the course, I wouldn’t worry about the “bonus” thing about “using Scrivener with an editor.” It’s useless. Yes, it works, but the fact is that it is pointless. If you are going to be a publishing, professional writer, then you MUST shift to Microsoft Word once you are in the editing/publishing process, and dealing with an editor in any professional context.

Do you, like me, hate Word? Tough. Word is where you will edit your book. I am sorry. It’s not my fault, or Scrivener’s fault. You can never escape Word. But with Scrivener, you can blissfully forget about Word for as long as possible.

If you already use Scrivener and have other cool tips about it, then let me know! I want to stab myself when I think that I wrote five books without Scrivener. Gah. It would have saved me years of my life.

Advice to Graduate Students

I earned an MA from the University of Manitoba in 2005 and a PhD from the University of Calgary in 2009. While completing my PhD dissertation (a book I have not yet revised for publication) within four years, I also drafted five books. I threw two of them away, and published the other three (with subsequent revisions): Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives.

Yet I am no productivity god. I wasted a lot of time, and wish I had done more. There are many graduate students who are also creative writers, and struggling to determine how to balance their studies and their writing. Here’s my hard-won advice.

I have framed it in response to an e-mail I received some time ago, from a self-described “budding author.” His basic question concerned going to do an MA (with an academic focus, not a creative thesis) yet also wanting to remain a creative writer.

How to focus on creative work and academic work at the same time? How to be a writer and a scholar at once?

Set Clear, Attainable Goals.

No matter what you work to achieve, you need to set goals that are clear and attainable. (For more on goal-setting for writers, see my interview with Chadwick Ginther).

The worst kinds of goals are vague, unattainable ones, like “hit the bestseller list.” Which bestseller list? When? How will you take meaningful action towards this vague goal? If you punch a copy of Quill & Quire, have you accomplished your goal? If you artificially manufacture some situation where your book ends up on the bestseller list (which is a current trend among self-help writers), will you check off your goal? Or will that fail to satisfy you ?

“Publish a novel” is a better but still-bad goal, as is “Complete my MA.” They are not terrible goals — at least you know when you’ve accomplished them. A novel gets published or doesn’t, and an MA hangs on your wall or does not.

A better goal is “Complete final polish on my first novel manuscript before the world ends on Dec. 20, 2012” or “Defend my MA thesis before I get married on Jan. 15, 2017.

Sometimes you’ll hear the annoying acronym “SMART,” as in “Create SMART goals.” Annoying though it might be, the advice is sound. You want your written (yes, write them down!) goals to be:

  1. Specific — You want to “finalize the manuscript for Vampire Sex Music,” not “write a book.” What does it mean to “write a book”? If you write a first draft, do you check off the goal? Or is a final draft your goal? Or a third draft?

  2. Measurable — You need to know when you complete a goal. If “lose weight” is your goal, then go to the bathroom. Mission accomplished! “Lose 5 lbs” is a better goal (in terms of being measurable — it’s a bad goal in other respects, since you could just sit on the couch and lose 5 lbs of muscle).

  3. Attainable — “Publish a novel” is a bad goal because it requires an outside party to intercede. In this case, a publisher needs to accept your novel, and in fact they will be the ones to publish it. (If you want to self-publish, then the goal would be attainable.) All meaningful goals should be possible to accomplish without the intercession of others. Although more wordy, something like “produce and submit a final draft until it is published” is better than “publish.”

  4. Realistic — If you have never written your name, then writing a novel is perhaps unrealistic (unless you have a long timeline). Often people are more unrealistic with their deadlines than with their abilities. I find that too many people are under-ambitious and in a sense too realistic given their abilities, but some people have a deranged sense of the marketplace or industry or their own selves. Research is usually the key to determining if something is realistic or not.

  5. Time-Sensitive — Everyone works better with a deadline. If nobody gives you a deadline, give yourself a deadline!

My goals going into the PhD programme were as follows:

  • Complete all of the required course work within the first eight months
  • Complete each stage of the program as fast as possible (I set additional, more specific timeline goals for each stage)
  • Complete all requirements for graduation within four years (I ended up going a few more months, because I was offered extra funding for those additional months, and I didn’t want to turn down free money)
  • Apply for every grant or scholarship for which I am eligible (deadlines specific to each) — both academic and creative
  • Complete a book and submit it to publishers before I graduate (i.e., within four years) … as noted above, I ended up completing and submitting more than one, and two were accepted for publication before I graduated
  • Complete and submit as least three academic essays to academic journals (I ended up publishing all three)

Despite wasting a lot of time playing Wii, I did all this stuff. I did a bunch of other stuff as well, other goals I set after I entered the program. I don’t say this to brag, just to show you that if you are realistic about it, and you set clear and attainable goals, then you can accomplish a lot.

Notice that my goals are both creative and academic.

Note that I didn’t set a goal to publish anything. Again: you can’t control whether or not somebody accepts your work for publication, and even if they do accept it, you can’t control when they will publish. (I am still waiting for an essay I had accepted over seven years ago to be published!)

All my publishing-related goals were to “complete and submit.” Even if I’d published nothing, I would have met these goals. However, I was determined to publish (I wanted to publish a book before I turned 30 — thankfully, Ex Machina came out just one month before my birthday!), so I kept “submit” in my goals.

The Deep, Dark Secret of Graduate School

Are you ready?

Ready for your life to be changed?

Ready to learn secret knowledge kept hidden in the darkest wood, buried a hundred miles below the roots of an ancient tree, in a lead-lined tomb?

Okay … if you think you’re ready. Here it is:

Nobody cares about your grades. Getting good grades is your least important concern.

Not an unimportant concern, but your least important concern. In other words, when you are in graduate school, straight-As are the bare minimum.

Everyone else will get As. You’d better get them too. But if you spend all your time trying to do well in class and get As, then you are wasting your time.

What you need to do is set yourself apart, without being an aggressive or competitive jerk. What people care about, when you enter the so-called “real world” after graduate school, is everything else that you did. In other words, while you are in graduate school, you need to concern yourself with gathering publications, awards, and experience.

When you finish graduate school, and are sweating in a stuffy auditorium while you wait to receive your degree, look around you. Look at all those people graduating with you, in your cohort. Now multiply that group by every other cohort at every other university graduating at more or less the same time.

Guess what? All those people have straight-As. They all passed. They all have degrees now, just like you. You’re all brilliant. But how many of you have actually done anything, other than getting good grades?

If you don’t do anything outside of graduate school, you look like a total loser to a potential employer and you’ve been putting your life on hold for no payoff. Lose-lose. Which leads me to remark:

Don’t put your life on hold!

There are no substantial rewards after graduate school. The jobs are scarce, the jobs don’t pay well (for the education you actually have and the time you put in), and you don’t get the respect you deserve. Not even from your Mom.

Moreover, putting your life on hold is a great way to look myopic and like you can’t manage your time properly. If you can’t get through graduate school without having time for outside activities, then how can you possibly teach a full course load and conduct research? Never mind have an actual, um, what do you call those things … “life.”

When I hear “I can’t imagine forgetting about my novel for a year!” I shudder. This is exactly the kind of thinking that is foisted on people. “You must put all aside and focus on your studies!” saith the dean.

But I will say it again: I wrote five books in first draft (two in final draft) including my thesis, and finished within the four-year (and a few months) “minimum.” And I’m not that special.

The reality is this:

Completing your novel, instead of putting it on hold, is the most important thing you could do for your future career.

If your novel is your thesis (i.e., if you’re doing the creative thesis option), then I would hope that this would be obvious. But even if it’s not, as in this example, even if you’re doing an academic thesis, then your novel is still the most important thing.

Why? Because everybody else is also going to have a completed thesis when they are done. Because everybody else has As. Because everybody else got award X or scholarship Y.

Everybody else is going to publish in at least one refereed journal (and it goes without saying that you’d better submit academic work to journals, along with getting As and winning awards, and writing your novel or poetry book or whatever).

How can you set yourself apart? Not by competing in-class to prove your intellectual superiority. You’ll look like a jerk (actually, you’ll be a jerk) and people will shun you. Not by getting an extra RA or TA job. Everyone else did that. But who else is completing and (hopefully) publishing a book? Or a schwack of essays?

Almost nobody. When people look at your CV, they should have to turn the page. They should have to turn 10 pages. They should maybe have to turn 20 pages. They should have to turn more pages than they did with everyone else’s CV.

At the same time, bear in mind that they are hiring people, not pages. Who would you rather hire:

  1. Somebody who has been hell-bent on graduate school to the expense of having a personality?
  2. Somebody who managed to tag all the bases, including drafting up a strong thesis, and craft a novel? (Or run a magazine, or produce a short film, or whatever.)

Who sounds more interesting, more organized, more capable, and more fun to chat with in the common room?

Nobody is impressed by my transcript with all its As and A+s and awards, aside from seeing the SSHRC on there. It looks just like everybody else’s transcript. Except, maybe, that I completed my studies on time.

Complete the program on time, and as fast as you can.

There’s a lot of bullshit competitiveness in grad school. Sidestep it all. Be nice to people and make friends. And quietly complete the program as fast as you can, faster than your peers.

You’re not struggling against them, you’re struggling with them, and against yourself. Nobody cares about your grades, unless they are low. Not even the department you’re in.

What do they care about? They care about how far along you are in the programme.

When I started my PhD, the first thing I did was look over all of the departmental policies. I read all of the policy documents I could. It was a nightmare, but I learned my most important lesson. I learned that the policy was, all other things being equal, when the department had money to give out, they would give it to the person who was the furthest along in the programme.

So, I completed all of my course work in eight months. Nobody else did. As a result, I received tens of thousands of dollars of free money, simply because out of my cohort I was the furthest along in my programme.

Even if there are not specific policies that would benefit you in this way, getting your work done efficiently and effectively will give you more time to have one of those lives you keep hearing so much about. And it will impress the people around you. You’ll be competitive without having to compete.

When I was done, my thesis needed a lot more work. I’m slowly doing that work now, in between other projects. I could have done all of this work earlier, but the goal is not to craft a perfect, publishable thesis. Your goal is this:

Craft a workable, defensible thesis — then get the hell out of there!

Polish and rewrite and get your thesis perfect and publishable on your own time. You’re getting a degree, not publishing a book. You can publish your book later. The longer you stay in the programme, the worse you look to an outside observer.

Nobody expects you to get your book accepted the moment you’ve graduated. They expect you will have to rewrite it anyway, and “get the dissertation out” before it’s publishable. They had to rewrite their dissertations, why shouldn’t you?

Other Concerns

In the original email, I was asked about an MA program, but I talked about my doctoral studies because the answers are relevant to both MA and PhD programmes.

The above is an overview of my general advice regarding graduate school. Below are more specific answers to particular questions and comments.

“Did you feel like you were compromising your creativity?”

No. I was careful. I minored in literary theory, which is broadly useful in academia and also of use and interest in a personal approach to writing. And I majored in Canadian literature, which helped me get a sense of where there was a gap in the literature of this country and where I might attempt to find a niche as a writer myself.

For me, this made sense and fed my interests; another writer might justify another field in another way.

If you’re going to have two careers, you need to make them complement each other. It’s hard enough to have a single career. You don’t need the hassle of a second one. You have to find a way to merge them and to view/present your creative work as an asset, not a distraction — as a form of research-creation (without crafting boring, theory-heavy books).

I didn’t do anything in graduate school unless I felt that it was going to help me as a writer in some way. Or improve my teaching abilities (because I love teaching and think it’s important to teach, a form of community service, like this website). And I made the time to write, regardless of how busy I was, even if I only wrote for 10 minutes.

So though I often bemoaned my lack of time, as I continue to do now, I was still slowly progressing on both creative projects and academic ones.

Where I did compromise too much was in not doing the creative thesis option immediately.

I entered the PhD programme with an academic thesis project and held onto it for almost a year. It was a mistake. I should have jumped in. It would have saved me a lot of time and trouble.

Not because writers should always do creative theses, but because my academic thesis was a worse idea. You should just go with the best idea, whether academic or creative.

Your most impressive project should be your thesis. Your second-best project can be your secondary focus. It sounds obvious but it’s not always obvious when you’re on the inside.

You can’t be tactical and careerist in your choice of projects. It will show in the work. You need to be doing your best work, no matter how sexy that work might seem in the marketplace. Your best work is always your best option, because it shows you at your best.

“I’m learning increasingly that writing is not only about talent, but mental perseverance, time management, organization…”

Hallelujah! This is, to my mind, the biggest misconception about art in general —that you don’t need to be organized, persistent, or efficient … just “talented.”

Whatever that means.

Talent is for wimps. Whoever told me that “Hard work is more important than talent” was right (it was either Maurice Mierau or David Bergen).

“[What about] negotiating between the writing mind and the scholarly … not only the varying mental spaces, but also how to go about establishing a routine that can accommodate both…”

It’s hard, but for me it’s not the transitioning that’s hard, since I have an analytical mind and don’t write from a place of emotion, necessarily. It’s the “only so many hours in a day” thing that’s difficult. I struggled with this then, and I still do, but even though it’s hard, the answer is simple: you have to prioritize both (though of course at different times, since by definition you can only have one priority).

(And, as noted above, you need to think of your writing as a branch of your broader research and think/plan/work accordingly, without getting into a headspace where you end up producing clunky, academic fiction, or wispy, non-rigourous academic work.)

I have written elsewhere about what to do when you have too many ideas, and you can more or less substitute the word “projects” for “ideas” here. The key is that, in your working life, your priority will shift. You need to understand and accept that: again, remember that by definition, you can only have one priority at any given time.

The trick is to make your priority an important, non-urgent project — and train yourself to work on that before the urgent, less-important things that can occupy your time.

Every day, try to take at least one concrete step towards completing this priority project. I define a concrete step as writing a certain amount of words, but you might want to include research tasks or other activities.

I insist on having clear priorities that are pre-defined, so that I don’t get wrapped up in what I feel like doing. I also set quotas for the week or day. Actually, I let my writing software, Scrivener (Mac | Windows) set my quotas for me.

I try to do more. But I focus on not doing less.

Even if I feel like garbage. Try to remember this: even if you write nonsense that you’ll later delete, this is better than writing nothing. It helps you think, and it helps you build discipline, and it helps to practice.

If you write a single usable sentence, then you’ve done more than if you put it off until tomorrow, when you’ll (supposedly) have more time or feel refreshed.

If you only work when you feel like working, then maybe you should quit. Stop deluding yourself. You’re a hobbyist.

Which is fine! Just own it.

Don’t act like you are more than a hobbyist. Don’t stress yourself out about these things, and don’t waste time reading articles like this, because they aren’t relevant to you. Relax and enjoy your hobby.

If you don’t want writing to be your hobby, then guess what? It is now your job. Even if you don’t make any money doing it. (I didn’t say it was a good job…)

So you have to go to work even when you don’t want to. Your job as a writer deserves and demands at least as much dedication and loyalty as your job at Tim Hortons, which you drag yourself to even when it’s raining and you’re tired.

Also, importantly:

Don’t trap yourself in reading/researching when you should be writing.

You need to do both. But your reading and research should not get in the way of your writing. Even if you are doing preliminary reading/research to prepare to write something (like an essay), you should be writing something else (maybe a different essay) or writing notes and draft material alongside your reading.

It will be easy (ha!) because you will:

Write according to a schedule.

I have written about this at great length, but the short story is that if you write according to a schedule you will be much more productive (like, produce 3-5 times as many pages) than if you write in large yet irregular blocks (writing like this, people tend to only write slightly more than “controls” told to write nothing unless circumstances force them to write).

The most important thing to do if you plan to be a writer and a scholar is to remember that AND. You have to commit to BOTH.

You don’t put one on hold while you work on the other. Trust that your success in one area will feed into the other — I’ve been hired to teach creative writing courses based solely on my publication record — and get yourself organized, get disciplined, and work efficiently.

Commit yourself and treat both your studies and your writing as a job.

Serious writers and scholars schedule time to write and don’t know what other people are talking about when they talk about inspiration.

So-called writers and scholars work when they “find the time” or when “inspiration strikes.”

Those people are pretentious losers. Don’t let them influence you. Don’t use them as role models.

The joke of the universe is that some of them have a lot of talent. And so, they get by. Imagine how well they could do if they actually worked, and honoured their talent rather than squandering it. The joke of the universe is that since they get by, they don’t even realize they are squandering their talent. Just imagine if they did not.

You have to imagine, because you will never know. Because they never will. They will always just get by. They will take your job, and churn out the same crappy essay for the next ten years, and get promoted, instead of doing something that matters to the world.

And so they will always be pretentious losers, even as they drink expensive wine while you swill box wine. None of which is any of your concern. Your concern is the work.

How I Built This Website

I grew up in a small town in Northwestern Ontario, and in those pre-Internet days, we were very behind the times. When I heard Kurt Cobain died, I was watching the news with my grandfather. “Who’s that?” he asked. “Some musician, I think,” is what I said.

I had heard of Nirvana but had never heard one of their songs, because we only had two radio stations: Oldies and Country. There were no music stores and no book stores unless you drove an hour and then crossed the border into the U.S. The gas station rented a few movies, but if I wanted to see a movie in the theatre, I had to drive over an hour (one-way) and then cross into the U.S.

So, when the Internet did come to my small town, it was mind-blowing. However, at the same time, it was also sort of lame. It’s hard to explain to younger people now, but if you’re my age or older, you may remember when there really wasn’t actually much of anything on the Internet. For many years, I refused to get an e-mail address, because I thought they were a fad.

I saw the potential of websites immediately, however. When I was in high school, the band Radiohead had a website. It had no information about the band on it. It appeared to be hand-programmed by Thom Yorke and just had a bunch of weird, surreal poetry linked in a complex maze to other weird, surreal poetry. (Looking back, it was probably a major influence on my book Ex Machina.)

When I discovered that Radiohead site, I realized that the web would become the publishing platform of the future, somehow. If I had any business savvy, this revelation might have changed my life. Even in my un-businesslike haze, as soon as I could, I bought the domain www.JonathanBall.com. I learned HTML basics and programmed a series of websites for myself. They were all way too much work, but I liked to mess around with them. In 2014, I revamped the site for maybe the tenth time, into its current incarnation, and started feeling like I finally knew what I was doing (or at least what I should do) online.

Over the years, each new incarnation of my website has appeared relatively complex (even if it wasn’t), so people often ask me how I built this site and how I run it. This is one of the most common questions I am asked over e-mail.

The purpose of this post is to answer that question, but I wanted to provide that long preamble first, so that you would understand something very important: I am not an expert in building websites. I just happen to have built this one.

Here’s how.

Hostroute

I buy all my domains and hosting plans through Hostroute, because they are inexpensive and have great customer service. That’s an affiliate link, and so if you end up also using Hostroute then use the coupon code JBALL to get 20% off any of their hosting packages. I don’t know how Hostroute compares to other companies, because I’m not a tech guy. I just know they are cheap and work and have great customer service, so I stick with them.

Make sure you buy a domain with a hosting package. Don’t just use the free hosting that often comes with domain name purchase. It’s not worth it in the long run, trust me. It will be a nightmare of headaches and hassles. You need to be able to support a database if you don’t want to learn code or spend forever updating your site.

If you aren’t sure whether you want a website, buy the domain anyway (the name by itself, without a hosting plan) just to save it for later. If you don’t buy your domain name now, somebody else will. Trust me.

WordPress

I run WordPress off of my site. I like WordPress because it is easy to update and has a lot of theme options, and is very customizable with various widgets and plugins. In the early days, I coded my site by hand in HTML. I don’t recommend that. Use a database content management system like WordPress. If you know some code, it helps, but WordPress is designed for people who know nothing about code.

Whether you end up using WordPress or one of its competitors, you will need a hosting plan that supports databases (sometimes it says MySQL). I don’t know what those words mean, but I do know that WordPress requires that your hosting plan supports a database since that’s basically what it is, if I understand things correctly, which I probably don’t. And look — I am running this website! WordPress is simple but robust.

Get Noticed! Theme

You can get a lot of free and cheap themes to run off of WordPress, and they work great. I started with a free theme, but at the time they were very limited. Now, they are much better. A free theme is probably good for most people.

For most of the others, an inexpensive theme is probably great. I have used a couple of different paid, but not pricey, themes over the years. Some of them looked excellent. You can always tweak these themes yourself, or (better yet) hire a designer to tweak them for you. WordPress is extremely customizable, either through installing free or paid plugins or through manipulating the actual code like a designer might.

I don’t have any particular ones to recommend. It just depends on what you want. Spend a lot of time picking out a theme, especially if you plan to pay for it or hire someone to customize it. Keep in mind that you can always change your site’s theme. It only takes about a minute. You can try out all sorts of different ones, and change it up whenever you want. WordPress is great because you can totally redesign your entire website in five minutes if you want.

You can also get some expensive, high-end themes. That’s what I did. I ended up with the Get Noticed! theme, which was designed by Michael Hyatt.

Before I go into the details of why I chose this theme, let me repeat that you do NOT need an expensive, high-end theme like Get Noticed! That’s just what I use. I like it so much that I would become an affiliate for it, but it doesn’t have a program so I’m not. I don’t get anything out of recommending it, and it’s expensive, and probably more than you need. Nevertheless, I won’t recommend anything else, because I don’t use anything else.

Here’s why I pulled the trigger and splurged on Get Noticed!

The point of this section is not to convince you to buy that theme (I don’t make money from selling that theme or anything), but to show you how it’s important to determine what’s important to YOU, and then find the theme that works for YOU. Be willing to pay a little (though maybe not a lot) for what YOU want and need.

When I explain here why I splurged, the point is not that these should be important considerations for you — probably they shouldn’t. The point is that you should think about what you want and why, and then find the online tools to support your needs.

  • I wanted to paint myself into a corner. I felt that if I spent some “real money” on a theme, then I would feel compelled to use it heavily, so as to get my money’s worth. In for a penny, in for a pound. I never said it was a good reason. However, there’s something to be said for psychologically “pulling the trigger” and convincing yourself to take your website seriously by investing in it.

  • It looks great out of the box. The theme I’m using right now is Get Noticed! with NO customization (design-wise). I’ve added widgets, and changed some settings, but I haven’t even altered the colour scheme yet. I haven’t designed the site to look nice. I knew I wouldn’t have time and money for that sort of thing for a while, and I wanted to focus on writing and adding content, not tweaking its look, so I wanted a theme that would look professional and clean right away — and would also be very customizable by a designer later.

  • It works great on mobile devices. You want to make sure your theme is “responsive,” which means that it will redesign itself to look better on mobile phones and iPads and such. The Get Noticed! theme does that, and does it better than any other theme I’ve seen. It even moves certain sidebar items, like the sign-up box, to a more noticeable place on mobile phones than similar themes. It’s a very smart responsive design. Probably it will get copied and so the cheaper themes may be doing some of this stuff soon, if they don’t already.

  • It has a bunch of “mini-post” options. I really wanted to have a way to post a lot of stuff on my site that was NOT treated the same way as a “full” blog post. A lot of themes allow this in a limited way, but the Get Noticed! theme has a ton of options. I don’t use some of them, and others I use heavily or in unintended ways. It’s very flexible, and it keeps all the “fluffier” stuff separate from my more “serious” weekly posts.

  • It has “landing” page types. I create a bunch of pages that are not accessible from the main site, which are special pages intended for special audiences. They are technically available through Google, but mainly available through links I give out exclusively. These might be intended for students, or people listening to a podcast appearance, or publishers, or other smaller audiences that I want to send to some specific page for some reason. For example, I have a landing page meant for editors to whom I’m trying to sell my “Haiku Horoscopes” column. Take a look and notice how the sidebar on this page goes away when you click that link. There are a ton of reasons you might want to have a page like this. They work great for “ad”-type pages. I don’t do much of that, but you might.

Again, I want to stress that this is all just what I use and therefore recommend. I don’t ever recommend anything I don’t love and use. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something better I’m not using, that also deserves love. I’m not the expert when it comes to websites, I’m just the expert when it comes to this website. This site works, so this stuff works. That’s all I know.

Coda

I have some other websites, where I do things differently, although they all run off of Hostroute and use WordPress. My site at What Rappers Are Saying just runs some free theme called “Decode” by Scott Smith. (That site is basically a placeholder for a more developed, future site. I set the whole thing up in less than half an hour, which just goes to show you how easy this stuff can be. Don’t be intimidated! Start your own website.)

My site at Haiku Horoscopes uses a theme that was custom-built for me by Ryan Hill. That’s another option, if you know what you are doing — just build your own custom theme! Or hire somebody to do it, if you don’t know what you are doing, and you have some coin to invest in yourself and your site. You can do this stuff very cheaply. Even going with an expensive, high-end theme, you will be out only a few hundred dollars at day’s end.

I hope this is helpful for you, but really, I think you just need to try things. But DO try things, and DO get yourself a website. You’ll need it later, if not now. Also, bear in mind always that you have to ingest recommendations like these cautiously. Your website has to be what you want. Sometimes, it takes years to figure out what you want. It took me over a dozen years to decide how to develop this site. In a dozen years from now, it’ll probably be unrecognizable.

To cap this off, I’ll suggest what I always suggest: Experiment. If you build a site, link to it in the comments, and I’ll check it out. Tell me what works for you.

Chadwick Ginther on Goal-Setting for Writers (Interview)

Originally from Morden, Manitoba, Chadwick Ginther was fascinated by Norse Mythology at an early age. Today, he spins sagas of his own set in the wild spaces of Canada’s western wilderness where surely monsters must exist. Chadwick’s short fiction has appeared in On Spec magazine, Fungi, and The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. He is a contributor to Quill and QuireThe Winnipeg Review, and Prairie Books NOW. His novels,  Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues (Ravenstone Books), were nominated for the Prix Aurora Award for Best Novel. He lives and writes in Winnipeg.

What is your goal-setting process, and how effective do you find it to be?

“Process” might be a bit generous. I don’t know that what I do is streamlined or reliable … yet. But it has mostly worked for me. My goal setting is largely deadline-driven. If I have a story or article due in with an editor, that obviously takes precedence on any more “recreational” writing. When I’m told to deliver something “whenever,” or not given a specific deadline, that item tends to drift away from my consciousness and takes forever to be completed. Which is probably why it took me so long to get this interview back to you. So my apologies.

I also find my goal-setting process to be something that is still under constant evolution, as my life has been quite different, year-to-year since starting this project. One year saw me change dayjobs, the next year saw me add teaching workshops to my to-do list. This year more closely resembles the last, and so while the year is still young, I find my planning is either more realistic, or my fulfilment of those plans is more effective. Maybe next year I’ll be able to say with more certainty.

When and why did you start writing down goals?

My first flirtation with public goal setting and blog accountability came in the lead up to the launch of my first novel, Thunder Road. I’d taken some time off prior to the launch to prepare (and worry and panic out of the public eye). I also set down a long list of everything I wanted to do during those two weeks. It was a very unrealistic list. However, I was still pretty happy with the results even if I didn’t immediately follow through with posting goals every month.

Early in 2013, (12:05am, January 1st, I believe) while under pressure about New Year’s Resolutions, which I never make, I realized I liked the term “Goals” better than “Resolutions. Goals can be altered due to changing circumstances. I suppose resolutions can too, but there is more of a concreteness to the term resolution. Goals may be altered, but resolutions are broken. It seemed like writing-based resolutions were only setting myself up to fail.

I wanted to do something though. I knew from experience that if I made plans for what I wanted to do writing-wise it was more likely to get done. Having a deadline, even a self-imposed one, made it easier to schedule the time to write. I also knew that even when I didn’t hit my self-imposed deadlines, I was always further along than if I’d said “it gets done when it gets done.”

Why did you decide to start sharing goals publicly on your website?

Accountability, mostly. There’s no ignoring the goal once it’s out there and public. Writing down my self-imposed deadlines made them feel a little more real. Once I started setting my goals publically, however, I found that I was getting good responses from my blog followers, and they turned out to be some of my more popular blog posts, so I decided to keep up the practice. I still don’t hit everything I set out to do, but I’m certain that I always accomplish more than I otherwise would if I didn’t think, and plan, and say what I was going to do, and when.

Aside from posting your goals publicly, is there any other way that you hold yourself accountable to others?

I suppose I could add that I occasionally get together with writing friends for “Writeoffs” where we sit in the same room and ignore each other and write or edit. I find these weekends very productive. Watching everyone else work away is a good motivator to stay off of Facebook and Twitter. I’ll also occasionally use Twitter to join up with other writers for a short 30-60 minute “Writing Sprint” where we write hard for the designated time, and then call out our word counts when we’re done.

You routinely post annual and monthly goals. Do you make goals on any other timeline — weekly goals, or a five-year plan, etc.?

At the moment, I concentrate on monthly and yearly timelines. When I set my monthly goals, I try and consider which weeks I might work on which of the named goals but that’s about it. I don’t break the month down for my readers that way. I also don’t set a word count goal for each week, although if I’m doing a lot of drafting, I like to hit at least 1000 words a day. Most of my long-term goals which might fit a “five-year plan” tend to be things that are not in my control:

  • Landing an agent.
  • Selling my next series of novels.
  • Selling a short story to a specific prestigious market.
  • Making a year’s best short story anthology.
  • Being a convention guest of honor.

I try not to sweat about those sorts of things. The only thing I can do to achieve those sorts of goals is to write as often as I can, and finish and submit the work. The more novels and stories I finish and submit, the better my odds, but there are still no guarantees.

Do you make use of any software or system to set or track goals?

I built a very simple spreadsheet for tracking words/day and one for short story submissions (sales and rejections by market). I’ve been tracking my short story submissions pretty much from the moment I started sending them to editors. The word count spreadsheet is new this year, so I’m still figuring its place in my system, but having a field to plug in everyday, is a motivator for me to get at least a little bit of work done every day, even when I’m exhausted, hung over, or stressed out about car repairs and if this winter is ever going to end.

I keep a master list on a Word document of everything I need to do for the year (and its deadline) and everything I want to do (and its deadline) as well as everything I’ve started working on, but haven’t finished. As the beginning of a month looms, I look at the master list and see which items are a good fit.

When Too Far Gone is off to press, I want to experiment with Scrivener.

Scrivener (Mac | Windows) might help with your goal-setting, since it has a number of great word-target features that help with planning. I’ve found it helpful because it lets me focus on the writing session, the work right in front of me, rather than the giant and unmanageable project that a book is, by nature. How do you keep yourself focused on the task at hand that day, and not get overwhelmed with the immensity of the project?

I’m a fast drafter, which helps me keep focus. With most larger projects I’ve been able to push through a first draft in a few months which keeps my mind on that phase of the creation. It is in tackling revisions where I always find myself bogged down by the immensity of what remains to be done (probably because I draft fast, and try not to edit as I go). It’s also when I tend to get distracted by the next story that I want to write, usually at the expense of the one that I need to fix.

I combat The God of Shiny New Stories by breaking my editing down into phases. Big story-level changes come first. Looking at character arcs, insinuating worldbuilding, reviewing pacing, and fact checking come next. Finally, and once I feel everything else is in place, I get into polishing the prose. While I don’t go looking for them, it’s hard not to clean up awkward phrasing, or fix typos when I spot them, so taking multiple runs at the manuscript helps keep the final polish from being too much of a trial, but there’s always something to find. The last thing I do is make a giant pot of tea and read the entire thing aloud to catch anything that sounds wrong.

How do you know when your goal is too lofty or not lofty enough?

I guess if I hit all of my goals with time to spare they weren’t lofty enough, and if I didn’t succeed I bit off more than I could chew. I’d say I probably set loftier goals for the year than are necessarily feasible more often than is the case with my monthly goals.

Over the last two years I’ve learned a bit of what works and doesn’t work for me, planning-wise. For example, editing always takes me longer than I think it will, and I always seem to forget about goddamned February only having 28 days. I also set lighter goals in months where I know I will be travelling now. I was on the road a lot last year, and I made grand plans to do some writing while I was flying, or in the hotel before I’d head into a conference, and that work rarely materialized.

In 2013, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but that November happened to coincide with me having a table at C4 (the Central Canada Comic Convention) and being on tour for Tombstone Blues. I managed my 50,000 words that month, but it was more work than it needed to be. As I’ll likely be on the road again this November for Too Far Gone’s book tour, I left NaNoWriMo off of my yearly goals list for 2015. And besides, if things change, and I’m travelling in October, I can always add NaNoWriMo back in as one of my monthly goals.

Why did you make participating in NaNoWriMo a goal in the past? Can you walk through that specific goal in some detail? When did you set it, why did you set it, what was your thought process in selecting that goal, and what techniques did you adopt to help yourself succeed? (I assume you succeeded …)

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times, 2011, 2012, 2013, and “won” twice, 2011, 2013. I had to bow out in 2012 in week one, I injured my arm and couldn’t type after I’d hit my first 4000 words. Even trying to write by hand was too painful (and impractical) to continue. I tried voice recognition software, but didn’t have the patience to teach it to recognize the Icelandic and mythological words that would be necessary.

I didn’t have much desire to participate in NaNoWriMo prior to working with someone who was a champion of Novel Month. I was vaguely aware of it as a thing, but not much more. I was comfortably drafting around 30,000-40,000 words a month at that time, so I didn’t think NaNoWriMo would be much of a challenge, but it turned out those extra words were harder than I’d thought. I’ve come around considerably on NaNoWriMo since then, obviously, having participated three times.

This is one of those every writer is different and everyone’s process needs to work for them moments. At the time, I was working in retail, and committing to starting a novel at my busiest time of year, when I was already exhausted and the worst was still to come, was hard. Even now that I’m away from the retail world, NaNoWriMo isn’t something I’d want to do every year, but it still has its uses for beginners and pros.

I know lots of writers who use it as an excuse to just join a community of likeminded folks seeking to (usually because of a looming deadline) get a lot of words down in a short period of time. Others use it as a push to finish a project they’ve already started, or to get a bunch of short fiction done. I’ll probably used all of these motives at some point or another.

Getting to 50,000 words in a month was also a good learning experience. It also broke down my normal writing process and made me stretch to find and steal more time to write whenever I could. I realized that “pantsing” a novel as I had with Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues and a few other unpublished works wasn’t the best NaNoWriMo option for me.

While I don’t usually outline, I also only tend to start working on a book after the story, world, or main character has been rolling around in my head for a while. I had none of those things the first time out. Instead, I started with two ideas that had collided together at the last minute and I spent the four days I had at the end of November frantically brainstorming to try and fill a novel’s worth of story.

That book was an utter mess, and I’m still fixing it. The 2013 NaNoWriMo project wrote a lot smoother at the time, but I learned from my first mistake and outlined a little more thoroughly than I normally do (I’m usually content to work with mix-tape style soundtrack and call it an outline) and while I haven’t tried to edit that book yet, I’m more confident that it will hold up better, if, for no other reason than I was more experienced when I wrote it, and hopefully internalized some of my editorial notes from my previously published works.

I think if you want to be successful at Novel Month, having a good foundation for your story and goal is necessary. I’ve used lots of strategies from my gaming hobby to help me be able to improvise on the fly, so that I don’t waste time working on things that don’t add to the word count, lists of names that I like, random character tics, folders with pictures of people and places which look interesting, etc. I also have a file of all the little notes I make while I’m on the bus, or out for a walk that don’t necessarily belong to another project. I mine those notes before I start something big to see what might fit in. If I’m going to do a Novel Month, I try to block out at least the month prior to brainstorm on what I want the book to be, some major plot points, and make myself a writing soundtrack for how I want the story to feel, that I will listen to while I write. You can change that outlined framework later, but having some sort of map in mind will help hit the ground running. I feel like those who outline prior to NaNoWriMo are more likely to end up with something they’re able to revise, and sell, more swiftly.

I also don’t write in chronological order, necessarily. If I’m not sure what comes next after I finish a scene but I know what comes after that I’ll write ahead, and usually by the time I’ve finished that, I know what the earlier section of the book will need. Once I’m certain of the ending, I write that immediately, and then write the rest of the middle towards that end goal.

As I was promoting Tombstone Blues at the time I was writing my 2013 NaNo novel, I mostly had only my coffee breaks, and lunch breaks to put down words. But in those panicked 15 minute and hour bursts, I’d usually write more than if I had a leisurely four hour block of time, because those short stints were all I had. I tried to not fall behind during the week, and then write ahead on the weekends. One of the tricks I used for that was to leave ragged sentences at the end of a writing session, so I knew what I needed to do to finish that sentence, and once it was done, I was already writing, instead of thinking about how I wanted to start. Similarly, I’d never end on a chapter or scene break. I’ve found that brings my writing momentum to a halt. If I finish a chapter or scene, I usually know what comes immediately after, and will start writing the next chapter or scene. Depending on how many words I’ve got, or how much time I have left in my writing day, usually a paragraph is enough to ensure I can start up quickly again the next time I sit down to write. Once I hit a bit of a critical mass on the book (this usually happens in one of two places—10,000 words or 30,000 words, momentum takes over, and I start racking up more serious word counts. I tried writing on the road, during my book tour, but wasn’t able to keep the pace I’d hoped for, so I still needed a 7000 word weekend to finish of the book. Which is where publically stating my goals helped. There was no way I was going to bow out that close to success.

You’ve turned in the final book in your trilogy, but what now, Chadwick? What now?

Since submitting Too Far Gone to Ravenstone Books, I’ve mostly been working on short stories, and clearing out the to-do list of things that I abandoned as my contract deadline started to loom. I have the first book a new potentially on-going series drafted, and am revising it for submission to editors and agents. I have another first book in a different series drafted, but have not begun to tackle any of its edits. Both of those books will feature different takes on contemporary fantasy than the Thunder Road Trilogy, and while both will be influenced by myth and folklore (because that’s what I love to write about), they’ll have less of a direct line to one specific myth cycle.

Having Too Many Ideas

Beginning writers often worry about ideas. The question “Where do you get your ideas?” has become a cliché, a question writers hate to answer, and the reason everyone hates it so much is this: non-beginning writers know that “getting ideas” is the easiest thing about writing. The difficulty, if you write regularly, is not getting ideas, but having too many ideas.

Having too many ideas may seem like a luxurious problem, but in fact it delivers to the serious writer a number of difficult challenges:

  1. You have to select which ideas you will pursue. You won’t have time to write all the stuff you want, and realize all of your ideas — not even all of your great ideas. This is a hard concept for beginning writers with few ideas to wrap their heads around. After you start writing with some regularity, ideas are not the issue — time is the issue. There isn’t enough time in the world to realize all of your good ideas.

  2. You must accept that you will let good ideas die. The darker side of the previous point is that you also have to decide which ideas you will never pursue. You have to become comfortable with letting not just most of your ideas die, but most of your excellent ideas.

  3. You have to commit to a project. The temptation, when you have many ideas in front of you, is to work on one until it begins to get tiring or difficult, and then shift gears and work on a different project. Writers that do this have difficulty finishing projects. They may make progress on many projects at once, but often feel like they are getting nowhere, that they have very little to show for their tremendous efforts.

  4. You must therefore sift good ideas from bad ideas, and then rank or prioritize your ideas. This is easier said than done, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I want to examine the third problem in this post, while touching on the fourth problem — how do you pick a project from your lengthy list of ideas, commit to it, and finish it?

Evaluating Ideas

One of the problems with evaluating ideas is that the quality of the idea is somewhat insignificant. You can create a good piece of writing from a bad idea, and a bad piece of writing from a good idea. You can even create a masterpiece from a bad idea, like Shakespeare did with Hamlet (one of the worst, most disorganized plots of any Shakespeare play, and yet what I consider his best play).

Your enthusiasm for an idea is also somewhat irrelevant. Your enthusiasm will flag. What will get you through the terrible slumps — and there may be many — when you hate your idea? Only discipline and commitment.

You may be tempted to think through career or market possibilities. This is always a mistake. Nobody knows what will sell this week. Nobody knows what will sell next week. Sometimes I meet writers who talk about jumping on some trend to make money. When the parade is marching down your street, it is already too late to join the parade. You cannot anticipate trends, you can only be swept up in them. If you already had a vampire novel out, or about to come out, when Twilight hit, then the trend might have worked for you.

Similarly, if you are making decisions about what to write based on some vague notion of what the market expects, you will simply sand the rough edges off of your idea — thus eliminating everything that made it a good idea in the first place.

There is no real way to evaluate ideas in terms of their intrinsic value, since they have none. However, you can evaluate ideas in terms of how useful they might be to you, by asking a few questions of each idea.

  1. How has it been done before? Almost every idea has been done before. You may need to do some research to determine what lives your ideas have previously lived. This will help you refine the ideas, to develop them in light of their previous incarnations, and make them more “yours.” You may also decide to abandon your idea after realizing it is far less original than you imagined. Research also has the benefit of giving you new, and often better ideas.
  2. Do you think you can do it? If you are confident in your ability to take an idea from conception to completion, then you might want to abandon that idea. When you don’t have to stretch to pursue your ideas, they may end up boring you, and they won’t build your writing muscle. If you want to develop as a writer, you need to tackle ideas that force you to risk something creatively. The more difficult writing becomes, the more rewards you will see when you finally solve your creative problems.

  3. Will this idea generate more ideas? What you really need from an idea is the potential to generate new ideas — a work of art is the culmination of an entire creative process, during which you will need to be generating and discarding and developing a variety of ideas. Sometimes, you will hit on an idea so strong that it is like a miniature idea factory: when that happens, you might have a concept on your hands, an idea that might give birth to and structure to some larger project. That’s what happened to me with Clockfire — I had an idea that I started investigating and developing, and it blossomed into a book.

One simpler way to evaluate ideas is to try to forget about them. If you can’t — if it has been years, and you still keep coming back to the same idea — then maybe there is something in that idea, and maybe you should commit to it.

I usually don’t pursue or begin writing anything (other than notes and a few lines) until I have let a few years pass, and then only if the idea still seems worth pursuing. For some writers, this means creative death. They mourn their lost ideas, which they did not pursue.

I love when my ideas die. This is a simple method of weeding out weak ideas that don’t even interest me for very long, after the initial shine of their newness has worn off.

Committing to a Project

After you have evaluated your many ideas and discarded most of them, you will still have too many ideas. You will still need to start prioritizing them and committing to a select few. A few factors come into play, and can help you decide what projects deserve your commitment:

  1. External pressures. If you have been given a deadline for a project, then you should prioritize and commit to it. This might be obvious, but I still find myself procrastinating and pursuing more enjoyable projects. Conversely, you have to be careful not to get caught up in the treadmill of your deadlines. You will find yourself completing a lot of minor projects that other people have assigned to you, and not making progress on your large projects. More on this below.
  2. Projects that live multiple lives. Some of your projects will go further than others, and have more of an impact on your goals as a writer. A simple example is a (good) poem. Once finished, it could: (1) be published in a journal on its own; (2) be part of a sequence that is published together as a chapbook; (3) be folded with this chapbook sequence into a collection as one of the book’s sections. Barring other factors, that poem might be worth committing to rather than a poem that you know will not be part of a sequence, etc.

  3. The project you most fear. As noted above, I like to commit to projects that I don’t think I can do. There are problems inherent in this approach, but I cannot think of a better way to grow as a writer.

  4. What have you already done? My curse for many years was that I worked on many projects at once. (My curse now is that I am still finishing those projects, and I have very little time for new projects.) My entire writing life changed when I instituted one simple little rule: I can only work on the book I am closest to finishing. I made this rule for myself in 2008. In 2009, I published my first book. I had a second book accepted before that one was published.

The last suggestion is the one that has worked the best for me. Since I started forcing myself to finish book-length projects in order of what is nearest to completion, I have averaged a published book each year. Before then, I struggled to finish anything for a decade.

Right now, I really want to work on a novel. But I am very close to finishing a book of short stories. And I “owe” a director a screenplay. So: the short stories first, the screenplay second, the novel third.

I try to imagine that I am two people: a writer and that writer’s jerk boss. The jerk boss hat goes on when I make decisions about what the writer is going to have to do, whether the writer wants to do that thing or not.

Prioritizing Projects

Now that you have committed to a list of projects, you still face the problem of which projects to prioritize (unless, of course, you are more ruthless than I, and your list is a short one that includes a single project).

I will provide an overview of the system I use to prioritize what I work on when. This is meant to be illustrative rather than prescriptive — your system might differ depending on your writing focuses and goals. You need a system, but not necessarily this system (although you could do worse).

I keep a revolving list of my Top 2 writing priorities. They break down this way:

  1. A major project, like a book or screenplay
  2. A minor project, like a single poem or a book review

“Major” and “minor” here just refer to length. As noted above, I try not to commit to any projects I don’t see as significant (“major” projects in their own right). Once in a while, of course, I am a hack for money (but only on “minor” projects).

I try to only work on the major project, and ignore the minor project. If I cannot ignore the minor project — for example, if the deadline for a book review is approaching — then I spend some time on the major project (a minimum of 15 minutes) before I allow myself to shift focus to the minor project.

Sometimes, if the major project is going terribly, I will just put in my time with it and then shift to a more fun minor project. So the major project proceeds faster or slower depending on how many more pressing deadlines I have, or how engaged I feel with the project that week.

Here’s what I’m doing these days:

  1. Major Project — A screenplay called Edenbridge — this is a priority because I am working on it at the behest of a director, and because of a grant deadline by which I have to complete and submit a sample of writing and an outline.
  2. Minor Project — This post you are reading, obviously. I have prioritized this blog post because I am teaching a creative writing class, and one of the students asked me to discuss this particular topic. This post is one of those “projects that live multiple lives,” in that it will serve as (1) class notes for a general discussion, (2) a more detailed look at the topic to aid that particular student, (3) some material for this website, (4) draft work towards future articles on the topic for freelance publication, and (5) draft work towards an eBook on working productively as a writer (an publishing experiment I want to try).

Finishing Projects

The important point, and the reason for this system, is that even if I have a lot of other things to do, and even if I am bored or feeling blocked, the major project gets worked on and gets finished.

Let me repeat that. Even if I have a lot of other things to do, and even if I am bored or feeling blocked, the major project gets worked on and gets finished.

Since I force myself to focus on things that are closest to being finished anyway, I make a fair bit of progress. Of course, this is possible only because of all the undirected, random progress I made on various projects in the past.

So, it is something of a false industry. The result is that I am viewed primarily as a poet, even though I write very little poetry, and mostly write fiction.

Nevertheless, how people view me and my writing is not my concern. My concern is writing.

How do you know when you are finished a project?

This is a question people ask a lot. I don’t have a good answer.

I decide that I am finished a project when I don’t know how to improve it any further, and it feels like no matter how much I work on it, the project is only changing superficially, not improving substantially.

This happened with The Politics of Knives. I worked on the book for many years. I felt like I was getting nowhere — not making the book better, just making it different. I didn’t know what to do. I solicited feedback from people, but the feedback all clashed. Nobody had a clear idea what was wrong with the book.

I didn’t know what to do with it. It was publishable, but not what I wanted it to be. I decided, in the end, to submit it to Coach House Books. I had such an amazing experience working with them on Clockfire, and they seemed well-disposed towards me. So I gambled. I suspected they wouldn’t want to publish the book as-is. But I also knew they would read the manuscript and consider it carefully, since they seemed to want to work with me again. My gamble was this: maybe Kevin Connolly would read it and realize what was wrong with it, and like it enough that we could fix it together.

That’s more or less what happened — Kevin suggested cutting out a section of the book where I had a series of single poems. The rest of the book consisted of poem sequences. I saw in a flash that the whole book should consist of sequences, and that I should rewrite each sequence to cross-connect with the others in oblique ways that might not be apparent to the reader.

Alana Wilcox also expressed concern that so much of the book had been previously published (there are odd rules concerning grants to publishers in Canada). She wondered if I had any newer work that I could include.

I realized then that I should pull out half of the book and replace it with new material. Alana was talking about something else, but she was right that the sections had been written too far apart and didn’t feel cohesive. Kevin seemed to get a little concerned at this point, because I started gutting and trashing sections that he considered strong, but then I replaced them with stronger stuff (aside from one proposed section that didn’t work, which he called out).

In the end, I “finished” the book and mailed it away … and then “finished” the book again en route to publication. My first book, Ex Machina, underwent almost no changes during the publishing process, by contrast.

Paul Valery once wrote that works of art are “never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death.” Sometimes you need to accept that you have come to the end of the idea and move on, even if you are not satisfied.

Praying for Permission from the God of Writing

A few weeks back, I wrote about How to Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule and that post almost immediately became the most popular thing ever written for this website. Recently, Elisabeth de Mariaffi (author of the most recent addition to my to-read list, The Devil You Know) mentioned that post on her website. In her article, de Mariaffi notes a sign on her office door that simply says “NO” to ward off interruptions. Inside, also pinned to the door, is a second sign, one “that tells the writer YES.”

I don’t have an office door, so I don’t have a sign (my headphones are my “NO”). But I do something similar to de Mariaffi’s “YES” — I pray to the God of Writing.

The God of Writing

The God of Writing is a beat-up index card with the words “The God of Writing” scrawled on it. I stamped some Canadian maple leaves on there too, on a lark.

What does the God of Writing do? Like any good God, it answers prayers. I pray, then I flip the card over for the answer to my prayer. Here’s how it works.

Dear God of Writing, I despair, for the kitchen is a mess. This office is a mess. My whole life is a mess. I should clean up these messes, but I would like to work on a poem about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. God of Writing, would you please grant me permission to ignore this mess and write a sonnet about Leatherface instead?

godofwriting2

Asking Permission

I created the God of Writing in response to my Catholic guilt. Although I identify as an atheist, it is more correct to say that I am a lapsed Catholic, since I was once confirmed in the Church and have not been excommunicated. More importantly, I suffer as much as any good Catholic from good ol’ Catholic guilt.

Those unfamiliar with Catholic guilt find the concept bizarre, so let me universalize it for you. The best parallel is the guilt that you feel when you are enjoying something. Not guilty because it is bad for you — not a guilty pleasure — but guilty whether or not it is good or bad for you. You feel guilty because of your enjoyment, and the thing you’re enjoying is irrelevant. So, when writing, I feel guilty for writing. I feel like there is something else I should be doing instead.

But there isn’t! Does this feeling go away just because you are a writer, and in fact your actual JOB is to write things? Nope. It gets worse, actually. In fact, if I don’t write then I feel guilty for not writing. Then when I start writing, I feel guilty for writing.

That’s right — Catholicism perfected guilt.

What’s the solution? My solution is the God of Writing. I literally go through an idiotic ritual requesting permission from God to write, even though I do not believe in God. The mockery of the ritual, which I built into the ritual itself, helps salvage my dignity.

I don’t pray to the God of Writing often, but I do when I need to. Just like I imagine de Mariaffi takes the signs seriously only on her bad days.

Giving Yourself Permission

Whether you post a sign on your door, or pray to the God of Writing, you need to give yourself permission to write. Sometimes, you need to give yourself permission to write badly, just to get the bad writing out of the way and relieve yourself of the anxiety that so often attends writing.

If you are a writer, and see writing as your career or your hoped-for career, the need to write should be obvious. Yet it is not always easy to write, because so often you will work on a project that has no definite deadline or even any definite future. You want to write a novel, but nobody has asked you to write a novel, nobody seems interested in your novel, there is no guarantee that anybody will want to publish your novel, or read your novel, and maybe when it’s done not even you will want to see the novel published or read. There is often no definite deadline associated with a large project like a novel, and definitely not any assurance of money or fame.

As difficult as it is in a circumstance like this, you need to give yourself permission to write. Nothing you do is as important as actually sitting down and writing, if you are a writer. (When it comes to working, at least. Probably a lot of other things in your life, non-work things, are far more important.)

This is an especially difficult thing to remember and keep focused on when you are successful as a writer. Success of any sort, major or minor, brings with it a lot of work. Work that isn’t writing. When you’re filling out forms and replying to emails, and drowning in writing-related work, it is difficult to remember that writing-related is NOT writing and therefore you need to force yourself to pull away from that thing that is almost due and focus on that thing that will NEVER be due.

The problem is compounded if you do not see writing as your career. I talk to a lot of people who write on the side, while focused on some other career, and I notice that they have the largest problem with this, because of course they see writing as a distraction from their career. They want to write, but they feel like they can’t spare the time, they can’t justify writing just because they enjoy it.

What I try to explain to them is that writing is the thing that will make their career. They want to be an accountant — well, every other accountant is an accountant. How can they set themselves apart? By being the accountant that writes. They can build an entire side business this way, or just build a reputation this way. Their writing has incredible potential to advance them in their non-writing career.

Even if their writing seems totally disconnected from their non-writing career, they would do well to connect the two. Maybe you’re an accountant that writes fantasy novels. Great! Start building a client list of fantasy novelists! Write a book called Write Off That Cool Sword: Accounting for Fantasy Novelists and hit the convention circuit. Write off your travel! You’ll be drowning in business.

Money, Writing, and Magic

I could (and might) write a whole book about money and writing, so I will just say a few quick things in summary. Money and writing connect over this issue of permission because so often we neglect writing because the time spent seems like a bad investment.

People say that it is impossible to make money writing. That’s not true. What’s true is this: It is very easy to make a little money writing. It’s very hard to make a lot of money writing. What is impossible is making a “regular” amount — making the same money, with the same regularity, that you would make working at McDonald’s.

But so what? Let’s put aside the important, idealistic reasons you might want to write. Let’s focus on the narrow band of practical, careerist reasons you might write — since these are the kinds of reasons you will find to not write.

Writing is not a great way to make money — it’s a great way to create opportunities. (Sometimes these lead to money in roundabout ways, sometimes not.) Being able to write is like having a magical power that makes everything in your life easier and provides you a shortcut to accomplishing anything. But you need to learn how to wield the power, which isn’t easy. And the power demands a price: time and blood. And if you underestimate your power, it will leave you.

You need to give yourself permission to not make money writing, and then write anyway, and trust in the God of Writing. Then pay attention, and thank the God of Writing when its blessings rain down.

Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule

When I meet writers, whether emerging or established, I ask them the same ice-breaking question: What do they find to be the hardest thing about being a writer?

The most common answer is finding time to write. 

I’m not surprised, because finding time to write is impossible. What surprises me is that writers even bother trying to find time to write. 

The answer suggests that writers don’t understand time, and don’t understand the basics of self-management. They may know how to write, but they don’t know how to work. They overlook or discount basic strategies — even though they might use these same strategies, with exceptional results, in other areas of their lives.

“Finding” Time to Write

There is one way to “find” time to write: Look at a calendar, and decide what day you will write, and what time. In other words, you cannot find time, and time will not magically appear. You can only allocate your time, in advance.

Similarly, there is one way to be a productive writer: Write according to a schedule.

The Importance of Your Schedule

Writers that resist scheduling writing time have many excuses. In his excellent book How to Write a Lot, psychologist Paul J. Silvia labels these excuses “specious barriers.” He identifies and refutes the most common of these specious barriers to writing, the first being trying to find time to write:

Why is this barrier specious? The key lies in the word find. When people endorse this specious barrier, I imagine them roaming through their schedules like naturalists in search of Time To Write, that most elusive and secretive of creatures. Do you need to “find time to teach”? Of course not — you have a teaching schedule, and you never miss it. […] Finding time is a destructive way of thinking about writing. Never say this again. (12)

Silvia’s book is aimed at academic writers (which is why he assumes that his readers are also teachers), but everything in the first half of the book applies equally to creative writers (who are often also teachers). Even if you aren’t a teacher, you routinely schedule things that aren’t writing, and you stick to your schedule — unless you simply have no control over your life (in which case, writing is the least of your problems).

A barrier that Silvia doesn’t address fully, but which people often bring up when talking to me, is the anxiety that attends the act of writing. Many writers I know (myself included — I’ve been there) feel guilty about not writing but also anxious about writing. The less they write, the more guilty and anxious they feel. When they do write, finally, they often do so in binges (usually before a deadline), and the experience is horrible due to the pressure of the deadline.

Yet they succeed (sometimes), turning in their writing by the deadline. Perhaps they aren’t proud of the work produced under this pressure, and negatively reinforce their own anxieties about writing. Perhaps they are proud of this work — thus positively reinforcing their bad habits. Either way, these writers reinforce their assumptions about themselves and their writing: (1) they work best when they binge-write, (2) they aren’t capable of keeping a schedule, (3) their anxiety about writing is uncontrollable or perhaps even necessary to their art.

All of which is nonsense. Silvia — a psychologist, remember — addresses the issue adequately in a little over a page:

Binge writers spend more time feeling guilty and anxious about not writing than schedule followers spend writing. When you follow a schedule, you no longer worry about not writing, complain about not finding time to write, or indulge in fantasies about how much you’ll write over the summer. Instead, you write during your allotted times and then forget about it. We have better things to worry about than writing. […]

When confronted with their fruitless ways, binge writers often proffer a self-defeating dispositional attribution: “I’m just not the kind of person who’s good at making a schedule and sticking to it.” This is nonsense, of course. People like dispositional explanations when they don’t want to change (Jellison, 1993). People who claim that they’re “not the scheduling kind of person” are masterly schedulers at other times: They always teach at the same time, go to bed at the same time, watch their favorite TV shows at the same time, and so on. I’ve met people who jogged at the same daily time, regardless of snow or rain, but claimed that they didn’t have the willpower to stick to a daily writing schedule. Don’t quit before you start — making a schedule is the secret to productive writing. If you don’t plan to make a schedule, gently close this book, clean it so it looks brand new, and give it as a gift to a friend who wants to be a better writer. (14-15)

Sometimes, writers resist making a schedule because they don’t have ideas for writing — this is perhaps the most specious barrier of all, since ideas for writing can simply be stolen (à la Shakespeare or Kenneth Goldsmith) or manufactured by force (as any writing exercise will prove). Nevertheless, some writers persist in the mistaken belief that they must wait for inspiration, even though:

Waiting for Inspiration Doesn’t Work

Most good writers already know this. However, many still cling to the fallacy that inspiration is necessary to produce any writing, or to produce good writing. Silvia points to research by R. Boice, who “gathered a sample of college professors who struggled with writing, and […] randomly assigned them to use different writing strategies” (24).

Although “college professors” is a very narrow, limited sample, the results are intriguing and instructive for writers of all stripes. The three writing strategies assigned by Boice were:

  1. abstinence — writers told not to write at all, “forbidden from all nonemergency writing”
  2. spontaneous — writers who scheduled 50 writing sessions but did not have to keep them — they could write anytime, and also only had to write during these sessions when they felt inspired — in other words, they could write as much as they wanted, whenever inspiration struck
  3. contingency management — writers who scheduled 50 writing sessions, were forced to write during each session, and were told not to write outside of these sessions

The results? See for yourself:

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The contingency management writers wrote 3.5 as much as the spontaneous writers, and 16 times more than the abstinent writers. Most significantly, writers “who wrote ‘when they felt like it’ were barely more productive than people told not to write at all” (24). In addition, “forcing people to write enhanced their creative ideas for writing” (24):

The typical number of days between creative ideas was merely 1 day for people who were forced to write: it was 2 days for people in the spontaneous condition and 5 days for people in the abstinence condition. Writing breeds good ideas for writing. (24)

I must acknowledge that Silvia does not suggest, anywhere, that the anxiety some associate with writing will lessen during the writing process. Common sense dictates that the more familiar and practiced you become, the less you will feel like an imposter or filled with anxiety, but many writers never let go of these feelings. Writing, in my experience, remains difficult and seems sometimes to be getting more difficult.

Nevertheless, this is irrelevant. The difficulty of writing will of course decrease with practice, but creative writers (ideally) are always working to raise their skills and so taking on tasks of increased difficulty, which from time to time will negate the benefits of practice. The end result? Either writing gets easier, and your skills barely improve, or writing gets harder, but your skills improve substantially.

Regardless, the best way to be productive (with difficulty or without) and to get control of your anxiety about writing is to demystify the process and normalize the activity through repeated exposure.

“The Schedule’s the Thing,” Like Shakespeare Should Have Said

Both Paul J. Silvia and David A. Rasch (another psychologist, this one a specialist on writers who struggle with blocks, procrastination, and related issues) agree that the details of your writing schedule (e.g., when you write, how long you write) are somewhat irrelevant in a general sense. If you have specific goals that require specific time commitments, then it might be a different matter, but generally speaking the important thing for writers is to institute a writing schedule, no matter what that schedule might be.

Silvia puts it this way:

The secret is the regularity, not the number of days or the number of hours. It doesn’t matter if you pick 1 day a week or all 5 weekdays — just find a set of regular times, write them in your weekly planner, and write during those times. To begin, allot a mere 4 hours per week. After you see the astronomical increase in your writing output, you can always add more hours. (13)

Rasch, in The Blocked Writer’s Book of the Dead, takes a more detailed look at the psychological barriers (specious and otherwise) that writers put up to avoid writing. The Blocked Writer’s Book of the Dead is structured like a workbook, and is of more use to writers with severe procrastination issues or other mental blocks that may prevent them from writing. (Ignore its cheesy cover.)

Rasch is less of a tough-love advocate than Silvia, but he still takes a behavioural approach and agrees fundamentally about how to be a productive writer. Here are a few of the things Rasch has to say about writing schedules and related matters:

Many writers with productivity problems have trouble with time. … Every day, through conscious planning or by unconscious default, you prioritize your activities and make decisions about how to spend time. It can be quite a challenge to determine how much time the writing portion of your life requires, and to incorporate that into a workable routine. (18)

I have worked with several writers whose primary challenge was taking the step of sitting down at their desk. Their anticipatory anxiety or other resistances create a mental barrier against taking the first step. Often they are entertaining an inaccurate and exaggerated estimate of the agony that will ensure if they write. (19)

I encourage blocked writers to make failure less likely to occur. For many reasons writing is frequently difficult to do, so respect that reality […] Make changes by taking small steps that would be difficult to not do. For instance, if your goal is to start writing every day, if you make the sessions short (15 minutes) you may find it hard to rationalize skipping the session. I encourage you to be pragmatic and do what works, whether or not it fits your image of what a “real” writer would do. (62)

An advantage of a regular schedule is that it eliminates the daily process of deciding when to write. Each time you have to make a decision about writing, it increases the likelihood that you will decide not to do it. The more regularly you write, the less dreadful it feels to face it each day. To the extent that you generate new, positive associations with writing through regular practice, you reinforce your efforts. (63)

Scheduling writing is not the only way to become more productive, but I have seen it produce powerful results for those blocked writers who found a way to move in this direction. Write daily. Write daily. Write daily. This is the single most important piece of advice in this book. (63)

Here is a nutshell summary of Rasch’s other advice regarding how to make a work schedule (I have simply recorded the subsection headings under “Make a Work Schedule”):

  • Write daily
  • If work avoidance is a problem, begin with short writing periods
  • Choose a time when your energy is good and distractions will be minimal
  • Resist the urge to overdo it
  • Track your performance

Rasch’s book is worth a read (he even deals with a problem on the other end of the spectrum, writers who write a lot and work long hours, who write often and without much anxiety, yet have little to show for it). He briefly addresses a host of issues, including dealing with criticism, actual psychological disorders like depression and how they might relate to writing, and so forth. Rasch provides a variety of strategies writers can use to be more productive and reduce their anxiety, and also helps the reader identify their actual issues with writing and get a sense of whether or not they might need to be addressed somehow beyond the book.

One simple piece of advice that Rasch offers, which I have found especially useful, is to make a “routine, simple pleasure contingent upon writing first.” I don’t drink coffee except when I write (sometimes I allow myself a coffee after I write; for example, if I want to go to coffee with somebody, then I write first). I appreciate coffee more, and I don’t over-caffeinate, and I write.

My Writing Schedule

I have to keep shifting my writing schedule each term, which is frankly a bad idea. But that’s my reality. I’m no saint, and I will often fail to follow the schedule as rigorously as I should. But I produce a lot of writing and I’ve published five books in the last five years, so I can attest to the fact that even a half-followed schedule will work wonders for you. Here’s mine in a nutshell:

  • I write weekdays, not weekends. I take two weeks off every year. (I track the days I take off.) This is, of course, my ideal and not my reality.

  • This term, I am writing from 10 – 11 a.m. every weekday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this is pretty much all the writing I can do — nestled right between my morning classes. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will keep this same start time but then keep writing as long as I can. As of this very minute, it’s a Wednesday, and it’s 12:44 p.m. Right this minute, I’ve written 2270 words today, since 10 a.m.

  • I set an alarm for 9:55 (my iPhone plays Elvis Costello’s song “Every Day I Write the Book”). When it goes off, I make coffee, then I start listening to Agalloch, then I start writing.

Your Writing Schedule, and Defending It

What is your writing schedule? Have you had success with a schedule, now or in the past? Have you had problems sticking to a schedule? Let me know.

If you haven’t yet done so, start a schedule. Try it for a week — just 15 minutes each day, as Rasch suggests. See how it goes. You’ll be surprised.

One problem you’ll run up against is people not respecting your schedule. That’s okay. Only you need to respect it. Jealously defend and guard your time. As Silvia puts it, when you start saying “no” to requests that conflict with your writing schedule, you will meet with resistance from others.

That’s life. Refuse anyway. As Silvia puts it, “only bad writers will hold your refusal against you” (16).

A Musical Sacrifice of Metal to the Glory of the Writing Gods

When I write, I listen to music. Specifically, I listen to the metal band Agalloch. I do not listen to any other music by any other band. Ever.

I have a playlist in iTunes called “Writing” that contains every album by Agalloch. My iPad and iPhone also contain the same albums, so that if I am writing on them I can listen to the same playlist.

(Does this meet the minimum standards of a “playlist”? The albums are just ordered alphabetically by title and the songs have not been curated — except, I suppose, by the band Agalloch.)

Why music, why metal, and why Agalloch?

Music is theorized to aid creative brain function and focus, when it does not require conscious attention and thus does not become a distraction.

Even if those theories are nonsense, I find that metal works well to erect a “wall of sound” and drown out intermittent noises. When I write in public, or even at home when I am not alone, wearing earphones also dissuades people from interrupting me.

Metal also shares many qualities with classical music in terms of its song structures, so (according to my own unproven theory) I achieve some of the supposed intellectual benefits (it’s debatable) of listening to classical music (which I don’t really enjoy) while erecting this wall of sound.

The singer of Agalloch scream-grunts for the most part, so I have no idea what he is saying and I cannot sing along or become distracted by the vocals. I have listened to the same few albums by Agalloch almost every single day for years and I have no idea what any of the songs are about, although I catch a word here and there.

When Agalloch releases a new album, I buy it and add it to my playlist, but otherwise the playlist never changes and I never listen to any other music when I write.

Being Extreme

Does this seem extreme? It is extreme. It requires no effort or thought. All the effort and thought goes into the writing.

I always start with the same song — “Limbs” — because the album it appears on happens to start with an “A” (as does Agalloch!) and so one time when I dumped all my “metal” into a giant playlist this band and song were automatically loaded at the start. By happy accident, the song begins with a high-pitched, whining drone-melody that lasts about 35 seconds.

Then the other instruments crash in and begin a slow churn. This signals my reptilian writing brain the way Pavlov would signal to his dogs that the bell meant supper.

This is my behavioural science approach to writing — and it works. When I hear Agalloch, I start writing. I don’t find myself stuck, wondering what to write. My body just begins, because I have trained it to begin when the music begins.

My Life Without Agalloch

Can I write without Agalloch? Of course. I am less focused, and more distractible. I always was, anyway: the music was a solution to this problem, so without the music I revert back to the problem. I’m no worse off if for some reason I need or want to write in a space without Agalloch.

Can I write with other music? Of course. However, since I’ve trained myself to work with Agalloch, different music becomes a distraction. I used to make playlists for each project. What a waste of time. At best, I would procrastinate. At worst, I created great playlists that distracted me to the point where I stopped writing and just started listening to music.

Do you need to write with music, or with Agalloch? Obviously not. What I recommend is nothing so narrow — the point is to create a series of simple triggers, behavioural triggers, that you can use to let your body and mind know that writing begins now.

I use three such triggers (it’s best, with this approach, to keep things simple and the elements limited):

  1. An alarm on my iPhone — it plays Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book” five minutes before my scheduled writing time, to let me know that I should get ready
  2. Coffee, which I only drink while writing, or after writing (I start making coffee when Elvis tells me to)
  3. Agalloch (when I’m getting down to business)

The Final Flaw

The one drawback of the system is that I can no longer enjoy Agalloch. I’ve trained my body and mind to tune their music out.

Whenever I put on Agalloch’s music “just to listen to,” I start tuning it out automatically and begin to write. I can’t help it. I just start getting ideas for things to write, and since I always have a writing venue handy (like my phone), it’s easy to start.

I have sacrificed Agalloch on the desk-altar of the writing gods.

Credit where credit is due

The above-mentioned song, “Limbs,” appears on one of my favourite Agalloch albums, Ashes Against the Grain. All hail Natalie Zed for introducing me to Agalloch!

Counting Words in a Spreadsheet (or, The Sexiest Blog Post Ever)

One of my favourite writing tools is a spreadsheet created by Jamie Raintree, which tracks word counts by date across various projects. Raintree gives away the spreadsheet for free when you e-mail her and/or sign up for her newsletter: visit her website for more information.

Why track your progress?

Maybe you don’t care how many words you write in a year. I don’t, really, in my heart. I want to complete projects, not deposit words in some metaphorical bank account. I want to write down some good words, not just any words.

Paradoxically, counting words helps. Knowing you wrote 367 words doesn’t tell you whether the writing was any good, but it does tell you one thing: that you wrote 367 words. If you write 846 words the following day, then that doesn’t tell you if you are making the most of your years or wasting your life. However, it does tell you that you wrote two days in a row, and that you can write over 1000 words of draft work in two days.

This kind of information is useful if, say, you are trying to schedule some writing work. If you’ve never written more than 3000 words in one week in the last eight months, then you should say “no” to that request to craft a 4000-word essay by the weekend. If you never manage to write on Mondays due to your teaching load that day, then maybe you should give up trying to write on Mondays. Schedule some time to write on Tuesdays (if, say, you notice you always write twice as much on Tuesdays for some reason) and stop feeling guilty and stressed-out about your busy Mondays.

Once in a while I have a horrible, depressing day, when I am exhausted and everything feels like a slog. On those days, sometimes I force myself to write even though I wonder why. I rack up 1000 words and then quit in total depression about how terrible everything went and how I wasted my time writing a thousand garbage words. Then, the next day, when I read them over I see they aren’t so bad. I was just exhausted and depressed. If I didn’t have an artificial, meaningless goal (like writing 1000 words that day) — if my goal was more subjective, like doing some good work — then I would have just quit and gotten nowhere.

Counting words is nice because it is an objective, quantifiable, non-emotional way to track your writing progress. Numbers can be crunched and analyzed in a way that your subject-to-change feelings about what you wrote cannot.

How I Count Words

A word is a word, right? After I started using this spreadsheet, I decided that I needed some way to count three special cases:

  • words I revised or rewrote, which I felt should count for less
  • words in poems — which are very few, but which I felt should count for more
  • my “Haiku Horoscopes,” which is column of twelve tiny poems, and just generally weird

I decided on the following schema:

  • 1 written word = 1 word
  • 2 revised words = 1 word
  • 1 page of poetry = 250 words (a revised page = 125 words)
  • 1 “Haiku Horoscopes” column (which runs two pages) = 250 words
  • Communication (e.g., e-mail) or other non-project writing = 0 words
  • Extent of revisions is irrelevant
  • “Stolen” words (e.g., in conceptual poetry) are not counted any differently (e.g., 1 word stolen = 1 word written)

I then decided to set two goals or quotas:

  • 250,000 words per year
  • 5,000 words per week

I chose these numbers semi-randomly. The logic behind the choices was that I could write a 50,000-word manuscript and rewrite it 5 times, plus write another 75,000 words on various smaller projects.

Also, I could take two weeks off. Additionally, on a busy day, I could decide not to write without causing myself undue anxiety (as long as I tried to make it up over the course of the week and/or the year).

I also thought this was an average that would be ambitious enough to produce meaningful results, but within the realm of possibility. (I guessed that I probably wrote more than this in a good year already, although since I didn’t count words I didn’t know.)

Analyzing the Data

2014 was the first year I used this spreadsheet, and frankly I kept forgetting. I can tell just by looking at the spreadsheet that it is completely inaccurate. For example, I did a lot of work on a book of short stories called The Lightning of Possible Storms, but the spreadsheet says I wrote less than 3000 words for this project.

Basically, I kept forgetting to input my work. Even so, the spreadsheet reports that I wrote 173,516 words.

In a year that felt like it kept getting away from me, one that just seemed to get more busy and more stressful, it was a great help, from time to time, to be able to step back and look over this spreadsheet. Despite feeling like I was losing my mind and accomplishing nothing, when I was stressed out I could relax a bit since I had an objective measure of having accomplished quite a bit of writing.

At the same time, I can see that I squandered a lot of time working on too many projects. If I had simply focused all of my effort on a single project, and all those words were in one place rather than spread around the writing world, then I could have easily completed another book this year. (Technically, I did complete a book this year — Why Poetry Sucks — but if I had been more focused I could have finished The Lightning of Possible Storms as well.)

Almost 40,000 of my “words” were devoted to “Other” — since I don’t even know what the hell I was writing, this couldn’t have been a priority — and yet random “Other” things was apparently my secondary focus this year.

Do I need to write a book each year? No. Should I have done things differently? In this case, yes, because I wanted to complete that short story book — and apparently I could have, simply by turning down other work. (And spending less time writing posts like this one!) Sometimes you have the luxury of turning down work, and sometimes you don’t, but keeping tabs on yourself can help you make informed decisions and see what trade-offs you are making.

By tracking how you work, you can analyze how you work, and you can make changes going forward if it feels necessary. Even misusing Raintree’s spreadsheet in 2014 helped me calm down, keep moving forward, and make better plans for the new year.