Priorities and Time Thievery

I’m not a write everyday kind of guy. I wish I was, and I have been at times (working on a novel seems to bring that out of me). I read comments from other writers who put in at least a few hours every day (if not more), working on their craft. I kid myself at times by thinking “they’re professional writers, that’s their job,” and while there’s a kernel of truth there, I know they all suffer from the same hecticness and interruptions as I.

The ideal is just that—writing for several hours a day, uninterrupted, churning out so many thousands of words at each sitting. During these times there would be no email, or phone calls, and no other projects demanding their share of time.

The reality for most of us is that life can’t be put on hold. There’s family, and work, other commitments, and other distractions. For me specifically, I work for myself—which means I need to be responsive to clients if I wish to continue working for myself. My work is full of ups and downs (busyness wise), and when I’m busy it’s best that I remain busy.

It is during these times when you need to realize what your priorities are. Is writing—or some other creative endeavor—critical to you? Is it worth sacrificing at least a little time to keep it going? I assume if you’re reading this then it is—I know it is for me.

There’s the big solutions—organize your time, plan, prioritize, keep lists, block out your calendar, etc. Or, you can take smaller steps—take snippets of time from other activities: write while watching TV (if this is family time, join in on the TV watching but wear headphones so you can focus on your work), while eating breakfast or lunch, during your commute (please not while driving!), in bed before falling asleep or when you just get up. Steal a half an hour here, an hour there, whatever you can get away with.

I’ve written in bed fairly often (where I started this)—before falling asleep, after having slept for a while, and first thing in the morning. I’ve written the first moment out of a shower, while on the can (go ahead and judge), while waiting in line at Chipotles, in front of the TV, on the road, and in the plane. One of my favorite places is lunch (I’m currently writing at a small bakery in Sedona)—there’s often a nice but non-distracting hum of activity.

You should also keep tools around to enable these stealing of moments—a pen and pad of paper if you’re a hand-writer, or electronic tools for the rest of us. Find a good app for your phone, or carry a tablet with you everywhere you go. Keep your data in the cloud (I personally use Dropbox and an app on the iPad that syncs all of my writing to it) so you can work on your current projects or start new ones where ever you are.

And if you do time steal, don’t get hung up on word counts—in fact, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about those normally unless under specific deadlines (don’t create more things to discourage your writing). Be happy that you perfected a sentence, eeked out a paragraph or two, or jotted down some new ideas. Any and all progress is good.

If your writing is a priority, you will find ways to make it happen.

My own results are mixed, of course—I’ve gone a week or more without writing a single word. More often than not, though, I do add to something at least several times a week. During this past week, while being on vacation, I’ve finished a first draft of a short story, made additional notes on some other projects, and pushed this blog post out (a few days late, sure, but who’s counting). This all came during breakfast, lunch, in the plane, and hanging out at my father-in-law’s house. Perhaps I sacrificed a bit of conversation time, but that’s how my priorities roll.

Finding Inspiration in the Low Places

The other day Galen and I were taking about art, and I raised a point about finding inspiration not only in great art but also in bad. She readily agreed, and stated that she’s almost more inspired by bad art than other things. See, in great art it can be difficult to appreciate all of its wonderfulness—individual aspects of genius are lost in the overall transformative experience of the work. You just know it’s great. But in bad art, every wart is apparent and you immediately see all of the things you would do differently.

Bad art inspires you to make something better. The same can be said about writing.

Before I get too far into this point, let me state that you need examples of greatness from which to learn. If you want to be a great artist, you need to look at the masters. If you want to be a great writer, you need to read great works of literature. Let these be your teachers—it is, after all, how they learned. But if you only ever use them as your guides it’s possible you may feel overwhelmed—how can you ever be good enough? And, worse, is there any point in trying?

These are defeatist thoughts, something we all suffer from at times. This is where exposure to weaker, poorly-crafted works come into play—they actively inspire you to try harder, to do better.

With a work of art, there are a number of components that make up the piece—composition, color, value, line or stroke quality, variation of scale, etc. Often when something is poorly done none of these aspects are handled well. Even still, the overall idea usually comes through—you get the intent, and you (if you’re an artist) see how you could do it better, or at least improve certain elements.

Written work is no different. A great many elements go into crafting a piece of writing—pacing, plot, character development, tone, word choice and sentence structure, etc. Again, when poorly done many of these elements fail, but the intent is usually obvious—and, as a writer, you see how you would have handled it differently. You may not be the best writer, but you know you could do better than this.

Additionally, when you look at enough bad work you start seeing patterns of common failures, things many people do poorly—and things you can learn to avoid yourself.

Here is where getting involved with slush* can be quite useful. Up until a week ago I had never read through a slush pile. While I was familiar with the process through peers (and reading about it), knowing about something and experiencing it directly are two different things. This has been very educational. Certainly there has been some wonderful submissions—really impressive work—along with the not-so-good, but there are also lots of interesting works which succeed in some ways and don’t in others—these perhaps are the most inspiring. The promise of—maybe not a great story but a good, well crafted piece—is there just begging to get out, if only the story was paced better, or the characters had more depth. Sometimes the failures are general sloppiness—a poorly edited manuscript, or a piece that received no proofing at all. These are fixable things, and seeing them so glaringly in another’s work will help me identify them in my own efforts.

At a minimum, I’ll come away with the idea that I could do better than most of the stories in this slush pile. I might be wrong, but at least I’m inspired to try—and sometimes that’s enough.

*The point of reading slush is to help craft a great anthology or magazine, but there is this added benefit of learning from others’ errors. I think every writer should experience this at some point in their career.

Time is Your Currency – Spend it Well

There’s a common expectation that you should give time and attention to everything else but yourself. That you are a better person through self sacrifice. God, community, family—all of these things should come before yourself (or, in this case, your projects).

I say: not so fast.

Time is a commodity we all trade in, giving it away for various reasons. Some of these reasons are quite valid—most of us need to work to live, we have families that are important to us, or we engage in social or community activities for the betterment of the world around us. But we need to take care when getting involved with outside projects (commitments, activities, etc.)—will they become significant time sinks?

You don’t get this time back. What you use is gone. It is the most valuable currency you hold, and you have no option but to spend it—it can’t be saved.

Of course you can time manage—in a way it’s a form of savings, but it would be hypocritical of me to talk in depth about this subject. Time management is not really my forte. In reality I’m a time thief—I steal my time from other activities (as I write this my lunch is getting cold). Rarely do I watch TV without my laptop or iPad out (do you really need your full attention to watch The Voice? It’s not as if I’m watching So You Think You Can Dance). This practice can be productive even if inefficient.

However, your real gains will come from self discipline and self respect.

Self discipline comes in the form of knowing your priorities and sticking to them. Avoid activities that do not achieve your goals—browsing Facebook, playing World of Warcraft—when you have more important tasks at hand. This is doubly important when you are trying to work on a personal project—blow off your employer’s time if you must, but not your own. Find the best times to do the things you want to do and make sure you don’t do anything else during that time. If this is writing (or other repetitive tasks), do this regularly. Make it a habit. And make sure this time is priority time for you—schedule other activities around this. If you often have conflicts, find a different time slot. It takes discipline to make this work.

It also takes self respect. Certainly you need to respect yourself and your time, believing in your abilities enough to make these kinds of priorities. But respect also comes into play when deciding which outside projects to take on. How do you value your time? Will this other project benefit you—financially, experience-wise, exposure-wise—more so than your own work? Are you sacrificing time from your own creative efforts by taking on something else?

To me, this last one is the biggest consideration.

I do take on outside projects—when they are something I believe in. My involvement here at BookLife Now is essentially an outside project, or at least not within my primary creative efforts. Same goes for a Kickstarter project I’m involved with (I volunteered my professional skills). There’s little to no financial gains here. And the exposure gains are minimal (don’t buy into doing work for exposure—your best exposure will come from working on your own projects, and building your own brand). I do these things because I believe in them, I feel I have something to bring to the table, and I appreciate the sense of accomplishment they give when they succeed. But I try my best to ensure that what I take on doesn’t eat too much of my own time. Giving up TV? Fine. Giving up gaming? Sure. Giving up writing time? Not if I can help it.

Be smart, be selective, respect your own creative efforts and time—and maybe even try out that time management thing. But remember that your time is your own—spend it wisely. You can’t save it up, but maybe you can steal a bit from yourself.

What’s in a Name?

We name the world around us. As children we name our toys and imaginary playmates. As gamers and internet users we name our accounts and individual avatars. As writers we agonize over the name of each character.

It’s no wonder so many writers give themselves a name. I liked the idea so much I gave myself two—a different identity for different genres and points of view. My guess is that a good portion of the readers here use one as well.

There’s a lot of reasons to rename yourself. For Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights he imagines seeing his name in big neon lights—perhaps no different than many of us picturing our name on the cover of a book. “I want a name, I want it so it can cut glass, y’know, razor sharp.” Razor sharp. Or maybe we just want something more arresting—simplified if we have long names, more floral if your real name is too common; dark, mysterious, comedic…unique.

Some may hide behind a pen name to protect their real identity or their professional career. Others may want to create different names for different genres—it might be prudent for a writer of erotica to create a pen name for their foray into children’s lit. Stephen King came up with Richard Bachman so that he could publish more than one novel a year, and his son—Joe Hill—turned away from his celebrated family name so that he could work and succeed on his own merits.

Creating a pen name allows us to create a new identity, a new character that may or may not look like us, live where we do, or do what we do. It’s a new layer, a new story to tell.

It might also be a new complication.

As a writer, artist, or creative professional in any medium, your promotional efforts are your own blood, sweat and tears. In this highly-connected world we live in, one of the truest paths toward successful self promotion is through social media channels. Attempting to create a name for yourself that is not your own poses many problems. Suddenly, you have an identity that is not you—at least not directly – and if you’re already active in these circles you need to start making choices. Do you create a new Twitter handle or Facebook account? Do you keep the pen names quiet? Tie them to your real name? If you’re already promoting yourself through a blog, do you want to set up another site for your pseudonym?

What about conventions and other “real world” events? Will you answer when that pen name is called out? Are you ready to sign that made-up name when people ask for your autograph? Are you robbing them of an opportunity to meet the real writer behind the words?

You also can’t sign contracts with a fake name. If your goal is anonymity you will need to seek out legal advice to somehow prepare this aspect before you’re confronted with a sale (which leads to contracts, which leads to exposing your real name to the editor and publisher).

If you’re highly inventive about your pseudonym’s life and experiences be prepared for some backlash. It’s very possible you can create confusion by the story you tell about your fake identity, and you may turn readers—or worse, editors and publishers—off with your fake personality.

These are all manageable concerns, but I suspect most of us spend more time thinking about what the name should be than how having one will affect your career. Don’t ignore this aspect—it’s possibly the most important consideration.

I recently made the decision to switch away from my pen names and publish under my own. A number of factors played into this: not giving each identity enough promotional time; seeing that publishing credits for one name meant very little for the other; realizing that most of my connections on Facebook (with my real name) had no knowledge of my pseudonyms; and not knowing if I should tie my personal artistic efforts to a pen name or the real one.

But it took another artist to laugh at my assorted names for it to really click—I was not doing myself any favors. He also pointed out that my real name was infinitely more memorable than the others. I can’t argue with that. In the end, isn’t that what really matters?

Hello, my name is Bear. Who are you?