The Time Management Triforce

It’s rare, the author who doesn’t have to pad their schedule for extra time. They do exist, and they know themselves intimately. Their health habits, productivity foibles, available time and intended schedule. Though they too can be felled by unintended life and schedule changes, the rest of us often operate on a less clear picture of ourselves or not too distant futures. Unpredictable health—ours or that of family—further complicate our ability to navigate our schedules with a clear head. Writers have to be a lot of things to themselves, and project manager is one of them.

There’s a strong temptation to take on projects for money, to continue publishing regularly—and while those aren’t inherently bad they can lead to unpleasant consequences. Getting locked into a contract for a product or publisher we end up disliking, taking far under what we’re worth, or doing it ‘for the exposure’ are things that qualify as unhealthy for our careers.

People, as the saying goes, die from exposure.

So how do we prioritize what to say yes to, and what to say no to? Half our careers are about making spinning plates look like something a toddler can do.

I bust it down into a few things.

  • Payment (monetary or otherwise)
  • Bandwidth
  • Impact


Payment might be monetary, trade, or even a favor. Monetary payment scales—for charities or for certain markets I will accept substantial rate cuts or even do it for free. I’ve done some projects as a trade, editing something because I’d later get graphics help on a project of my own. When it comes to magazines, news outlets, or fiction, payment breaks down into it being about what I get out of it in terms of monetary/trade gain, and platform. I’ve sometimes blogged for highly reduced rates or for free because the platform afforded to me by the publisher was valuable enough to equal out the loss in money or bankable favors. I don’t recommend piling your plate with platform not payment assignments, but consistently doing them over time around your other projects becomes one more way to build your audience. Great platforms and poor paychecks can create readers that follow you to other projects. Won’t be all the readers, but a few dedicated fans can go a long way.

Bandwidth is all about my emotional, physical and time limits. If I say yes to something, from a one-off blog post to contributing thousands of words to a roleplaying game text, it’s going to hit all three. Writing’s fatiguing, and it takes a lot of time. If I say yes, I have to have the time to do it. Preferably with a long enough lead time to build in some padding for unexpected events, but I’ve done short stories in under a week, and proofed a 65,000+ word manuscript in under a day—the literary equivalents of making a turn on a dime. How’s the rest of my schedule, both personal and for work? What about my boyfriend’s schedule? I want to keep my own scheduling needs in mind, but if you have a partner, or a family, you also have to consider what time you can sacrifice versus what time you want to see them. In a crunch, I know we won’t see each other a lot during some of our projects, but building in room to see and connect with your loved ones is a big deal. If you book yourself too solid, you wipe out your bandwidth in every way, and that hits you harder—because it hits everything including that project. I can write an eight thousand assignment in a day if I have to, but I’d like to never do that again. Keeping bandwidth concerns in mind protects your ability to produce quality work, not make yourself crazy, and prevents driving work between you and your partner as a wedge of obligation.

Impact is at least in part a long game, career oriented concern. Does this assignment have any impact, positive or negative? Does this build my skills, challenge me, or expose me to an audience that may not know me? Will I learn from people I admire, something that ties closely into payment concerns. Will the name of this anthology follow me forever, and can I own that? If you’re afraid of the impact of a possibly controversial publication, weigh in with yourself on whether you can own that decision. Do you have the ability to turn jokes or rage around on others? To defuse others, or just deflate them? Sometimes a project isn’t worth the potential negative impact, long or short term. But the stomach churning days of hate mail as a journalist make me far more prepared for rejections and negative reviews. You don’t have to do projects you’re reluctant about. But a good way to step up your game is to say yes now and then to the stuff that might make you—or others—a little uncomfortable.

Payment. Bandwidth. Impact. Keep the three in mind, and you’ll be a better project manager for yourself. Expertly managed time means a better use of the opportunities we say yes to.

So go get ‘em, tiger.

Escaping Fight-or-Flight: Three Tricks for Sidestepping Writer’s Block

Note from Jaym:

I met Marcus over Hunan food at an SF In SF dinner for the VanderMeers. We hit it off immediately. He writes children’s books that cause uproars and fill a hole in the industry, and I find that wonderful.

If you’re a writer, and you’re anything like me, then… god help you.

‘God help you,’ because this means that the one activity you value more than all others, the single human endeavor the lack of which you bemoan during all OTHER activities, is simultaneously the thing you’re most afraid of. When you actually have the time to write, it’ll be the thing you most flee – as though from a quaint wooden house… currently engulfed in flames. And – hey! – ENTIRE decades of your life might be trampled underfoot by this push-pull, start-stop, Saturnalia of sadomasochism. And through it all, you’re gonna be so much FUN to be around!

Why this should be, I don’t know. Actually, I could cite all sorts of cool theories, drawing on everything from Buddhism to the 12 Steps, but at the end of the day – even with all the insight in the world – you’re still gonna avoid writing this very article (to use a totally random example) for many, many days.

(That said, I must give at least one shout-out at this point, to Victoria Nelson’s superb book, On Writer’s Block. Clever & humane, it’s chock-full of anecdote and literary history, and lays out the most compelling – and compassionate – take on writer’s block that I’ve ever heard. ANNNNND for all that, please note that while this blog-post is due “Thursday morning,” it’s currently 1:12 AM as I type these words…)

NEVERTHELESS! Here are 3 quick tricks I *have* learned along the way, simple devices (dare I say ‘cheats’?) that have, at least occasionally, dislodged me from total paralysis. I hope you find them useful as well.

Get a diverse handful of multi-sided dice, like the ones used in role-playing games: 4-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided, etc. When you get stuck in your writing, and your brain’s spinning unhelpfully, jot down…oh, let’s say 6 choices:

1. Reread my intro
2. Line edit Chapter 3
3. Brainstorm some backstory on the queen character
4. Write one – and ONLY one – paragraph describing Olivia’s face
5. Write one – and ONLY one – paragraph for when Julia and O. first meet
6. Get up and go take a walk for X minutes

Now, roll your 6-sided dice and see what you get!

(How many minutes is X, btw? You want to walk for at least 10 minutes, let’s say, but no more than 30. Roll your 20-sided dice, and add 10 to the result. That’s X.)

You can put ANYTHING to a die-roll. It cuts through obsessive cerebration, plus adds immediate playfulness to what might have otherwise been a pretty grim mix…

This next technique is a doozy, one I lifted straight from the pages of another fine book, Karen Peterson’s Write: 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. (Ms. Peterson also makes a good case for the therapeutic, un-blocking powers of dark chocolate, so trust me, you’ll love this book. Who doesn’t love science?)

She goes into much greater detail than I will, but here’s the dumbed-down version, which has served me just fine, on innumerable occasions:

With the hand you use for writing, write out a question:
e.g., “What story should I work on next?”
“What should happen to the old baker, from Chapter 8?”

Pause for a moment.
Switch the pen to your non-dominant hand, and let it write out the answer.

This technique might sound too simple-simon to work, but it’s never let me down – IF I remember to use it. The coolest part is this: I CANNOT force my non-dominant hand to write a single word it doesn’t ‘want’ to. Often I approach the page with what I think is the right answer, only to find my answering hand engaging in civil – but thorough – disobedience. And sometimes, the answer will not only be different from what I expected, but different from anything I would have consciously concocted, and much, much more shrewd…

This is another one I stole, from Jennifer Lee’ awesome book, The Right-Brain Business Plan. Unlike the last two methods, this one is for longer term motivation:

Come up with a pithy goal for your writing for, let’s say, this year (mine for 2012: “Submit 5 new kids’ book manuscripts”). Then draw, paint, or collage a visual that represents that goal. Find or create images for each subgoals (“Finish a draft of kids’ book #3 by the end of May”), and keep all the components of this right-brain business plan some place where you’ll see it often. Seeing is believing. You will find that the pretty pictures beckon you forward, that the gestalt image they present you with hasten your goals into manifesting. Now, Jennifer Lee explains this whole process much better than me, of course, so let me just say that my RBBPs for 2010 and 2011 kept me thoroughly on track, and did I mention I procrastinate? (It’s currently 10:36 AM as I type this…)

(Jaym is going to add a note that, as she edits and posts this, it is 1:11 AM of the day the post is due, to let Marcus and the gentle reader know that this is an art-form, thank you very much.)

Marcus Ewert wrote the book 10,000 Dresses, (Seven Stories Presses, 2008) the first children’s book to feature a transgender protagonist.
His next children’s book, ECLAIRS WHO DARE, will be published by McSweeney’s new children’s book imprint McSweeney’s McMullens.
In a different vein, if you want TMI re. Marcus’ adolescent fling with an elderly William Burroughs (no, really), just watch the new documentary William Burroughs: A Man Within, by director Yony Leyser.