Time Management and Motivation: A How-(Not)-To Guide

time management and motivation

July was a great month for this blog. I had posts going out most days. Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing much else. When August hit, I had nothing scheduled. I also hadn’t made my CraicCon video (with that event at the start of July.) I hadn’t written a new story in a long time. I hadn’t planned any work, or recorded a video. I was unmotivated, and I wasn’t managing my time in such a way that I would get something done. So now, more than half-way through the month, here’s my how-not-to manage time and motivate yourself post.

1. Take on too much work. Ignore everything else.

In July, I wanted to write three stories. I also wanted to blog on a regular basis, begin interviewing people for Comix Ireland, and make a few videos – at least one a week. In the meantime, I started a new job. I actually had fewer hours in this job than in the one I left, but every new job comes with a certain amount of stress and uncertainty. I didn’t account for that when I set myself a list of tasks to complete filled every waking moment. I also didn’t take into account the fact that a friend who lives abroad was back in the country in July. Naturally, I had to put seeing her first. I won’t get to see her again until, maybe, October. If not then, Christmas.

2. Make excuses about how much time you have.

A month seems like a long time to get anything done. Unfortunately, that attitude can get you in trouble. I thought that I could miss a day and be fine with that. What ended up happening, however, was that I would miss a day and then realise that I had even more work to do per day. Having a month to do a project that takes a week is asking for trouble.

3. Prioritise television over creative projects.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time watching television lately. There are no two ways about it. I watched Stranger Things in one day. I watched dozens of episodes of Pokémon. I started watching Gotham. I had a couple of excuses this month for not working – a trip to Canterbury and Dublin Comic Con, as well as a headache so bad it verged on deadly (slight exaggeration, I guess) and post-con exhaustion. (Post Canterbury-work-con exhaustion, really.)

4. Bury your laptop.

A great way to get no work done is to put your laptop underneath a pile of objects in your room. Nothing too heavy – you don’t want it breaking – just enough that moving them becomes a chore. Having succeeded in doing this, I managed to keep my laptop there for well over a week. With (personal) deadlines to meet.

SOLUTION

Today, I decided to fix things. I dug out the laptop. I watched only one episode of Gotham. I didn’t make plans to leave the house for no reason. (I actually had a reason to leave that I forgot about, but by forgetting, I managed to get work done.) I set myself a strict deadline – tomorrow – to get work done, and I shut myself away to get it done. I also focused on two tasks, for one project: the final edits of the book, and its cover.

Getting back to work on this project was important to me. It was also really important to do it today, because, as it happens, my friends have opinions on book covers. Thirteen iterations of the cover for the book later, and (as I type this), there’s still no clear favourite. Book cover banter.

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Beating Writer’s Block: Ask Another Writer

Ask Another Writer

If there’s one group of people that can help you with an issue you have with your book, it’s other writers. Other writers always seem to have been there and done that. Other writers have had the same difficulties you have had, and they’ve come out on top. All you need to do to get help from them is ask.

With a few exceptions, we’re a helpful community of people who are happy to provide other writers with the feedback and support that’s necessary in the Arts. Finding other writers is easier than you might think, too. When I was 16, Bebo launched its Bebo Authors section. In hindsight, it wasn’t great, but it did help introduce me to over a dozen authors in a group I founded, many of whom were my own age, and a few others who had more experience with writing, publishing and life in general.

The group unofficially disbanded a few years ago, but a few of us still keep in touch regularly. They were the first writers I knew who weren’t massively successful authors. It was some time later before I managed to get onto first name terms with some of them.

The point here is that anyone can set up a writing group. The reality is, you don’t even need to if you don’t want to. Twitter has thousands of writers active daily. So, too, do Facebook and Google+. You can find me on each of them. Through each site, I managed to find dozens of other writers who I’ve become friends with. One is a Canadian author who also publishes her own books online. Another is an Irish author who taught myself and a friend about writing synopses for books, using one her publishers hadn’t yet released as an example. I’ve met a Scot who gave me my first writing job, an English author who helped me along the path towards getting an article published in the magazine she wrote for, and dozens of authors from around the world with whom I worked on blog tours.

Every connection made was organic and real, and from day one there’s only been support going each way between each of us.

When you need help with something, then, it’s simply a matter of asking another writer, one that you’ve met online or at a local writing group. They don’t have to be published. They don’t have to be massively successful. They could just be a blogger, or someone with high hopes for publication. So long as they write, they have some experience that might come in handy. With that said, so do you. You can help other writers if they ask for advice. Look out for the questions writers ask online. You might surprise yourself that you have an answer.

What you ask is, obviously, dependant on what your specific problem is. How you ask it is up to you. Some tweet out a question. Others use (or, used to use, I’m not sure anymore) Google+ to help organise a Hangout – a free group video chat – to help find a solution to the problem. You can choose who you ask for help, more privately, too. All that aside, you can also ask an author whose work you read. In the hunt for approximate word counts of books for children and young adults, several authors stepped forward, including Barry Hutchison, Maureen Johnson and John Green. It really does help to ask.

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Beating Writer’s Block: Talk to a Friend

Talk to a Friend

Have you ever had a problem with a relationship or with work that seems to go away or become more manageable when you talk to a friend about it? You don’t know how you feel about someone. You hate your job, or your job hates you. You complain, your friend listens, and then you receive some deceptively simple advice that, even if you don’t follow it, helps.

That also works for writers.

When I have trouble with a story, I talk to my twin brother. (Caveat: we don’t do it telepathically. Usually it’s while we’re having a cup of tea in the kitchen. Sorry to disappoint you.) We have a lot of the same interests, but he doesn’t write a lot. In terms of the genre of the different books I write, he’s the best person to talk to at short notice. It usually involves me telling me what I’ve written so far, and then concluding my summary with, “But I’m not sure what to do here.”

Now, I’m not going to pretend my brother even gets a chance to give advice. Usually I’m telling him what I want to do, with three or four different variations. This is a big problem when I haven’t planned something properly. (Specifically, when something in the book isn’t in the plan, because inspiration struck.)

The help you can get towards beating Writer’s Block by talking to a friend are two-fold.

On the one hand, you can think out loud. (That is, you can think out loud without anyone judging you for talking to yourself in public.) On the other hand, you have someone present to give you feedback. Add to this the benefits of working with someone on generating ideas, and you have a winner.

It has been pointed out frequently in the past that a pair of people do not merely bring two sets of ideas to the table. While each person in the conversation has their own ideas, they can also create a third set of ideas. The simple act of working together means that two minds can create as many ideas as three individuals. For a writer struggling with a scene – for anyone struggling with a problem, really – talking to someone about it is the best way of getting as many ideas as possible, through the combination of ideas and patterns of thought.

I personally recommend a face-to-face conversation for this sort of talk. This doesn’t necessarily mean having to meet up with somebody – especially difficult if they live across the country, or in a different one altogether – but it does help to get to see someone’s face, and for them to see that when you’ve stopped talking, it’s because you’re taking or reading your notes. It’s also much easier to communicate when you can look someone in the eye; simple audio doesn’t quite cut it most of the time.

If talking to a friend hasn’t helped, check out other posts I’ve done on the subject of Beating Writer’s Block. Alternatively, wait for tomorrow’s post: Ask Another Writer.

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Beating Writer’s Block: Define Your Problems

Define Your Problems

In this post, we’re not going to look at your work in progress. This post is all about you. It’s about what makes you tick, and what makes you stop.

In the autumn of 2013, I had trouble sleeping. I had finished college. Several of my close friends were leaving the country. I was stuck in the same weekend job I had had since 2007. I couldn’t sleep, because I couldn’t stop thinking about all the different things that were troubling me. Between the tiredness and the feeling of being overwhelmed by my life at that time, I couldn’t write. I had gone from writing every day for two and a half months – a poem and a blog post as a daily minimum for much of that time – to writing nothing.

Getting back into writing was difficult, but it would have been impossible to do so if I hadn’t first addressed what it was that left me feeling so poorly.

I’m not going to claim to be a self-help guru. I’m not an expert in fixing all the little problems in life. I can, however, tell you how I managed to overcome the troubles I was experiencing. While I can’t guarantee it will work for everyone, it’s a simple trick that should come in handy. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, and a way to count down two minutes.

If you’re struggling to write, and you have a lot on your mind, this is the exercise for you.

Action Time! Start your two minute timer, and write down everything that’s troubling you.

Work, money, relationships, writing, a big event, a sudden change in your life, everything. Write them in a list down the page.

When the two minutes are up, look at each item on your list. Next to them, write down what you can do about them. You might find there’s nothing you can do for some things. I couldn’t change the fact that my September was going to feel emptier. I couldn’t change the fact that my friends were leaving. They were things that left me upset, but realising that they were a fact – unchangeable, out of my control – meant I could accept them. I still had my weekend job, but I knew from that moment on that I wasn’t bound to it. I could look for another job. I no longer needed to keep a job that gives me just enough hours to keep me going throughout the week. I didn’t need all that flexibility anymore, and instead of looking at the job as a dead end, I could look beyond it.

There were others areas of my life that I worried about, yes. I had a list of five items in total, the other two more personal. One I could do something about, the other I couldn’t, and taking action where it was possible made all the difference. Acknowledging that some things are just how life is at the moment makes things easier to get on with.

This isn’t a quick fix to your problems, but it does help to clear the mind of doubt and worry every now and then. Change what you can about your life, and revisit the other problems further down the line. Something might have changed.

It took me three weeks to write another blog post. I managed to publish one every other week for the rest of the year. It was a slow start, and it was exactly what I needed. By the New Year, I was writing more every day than I had done in a long time, because I had addressed the core issues that were preventing me from thinking clearly and working effectively.

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Beating Writer’s Block: Write Something Else

Write Something Else

Sometimes, the easiest way to get past Writer’s Block is to write something else. I’m not saying completely scrap your progress on your book or poem or story; I simply mean that you put it aside for a period of time. Give yourself a chance to gather your thoughts on the project again. Quite often the problem is a lack of enthusiasm for something, because you’ve been writing it for a long time, and an increased amount of enthusiasm for another project that you can’t write at the same time. Pick one, and settle on it.

If even for one day you write something else, you’ll find that you can focus more fully on the projects that really matter to you. Now, if you have some financial stake in a project, dropping it at short notice is obviously the wrong thing to do (if, as most likely is the case, you have bills to pay.)

At the time of writing these articles (several years before they’ve gone up), I could have also been writing a novella. I could have been working on a longer non-fiction book, or a series of books that I want to launch. There are dozens of other projects I could have been working on. These articles – put together as a book – was my primary focus, because it was the one that could potentially help pay the bills. However, I hadn’t given up entirely on everything else. Through time management and the proper planning of work and goals, it was possible for me to maintain a prose and poetry blog, and my personal blog, and write an article a week for my website.

None of it is so difficult that I can’t continue on with it anymore, because I can write across several different projects at a time. Here’s your task for this post, to help you overcome Writer’s Block.

First of all, figure out how much time in the week you can devote to writing on a daily basis. Whether it’s ten minutes, an hour, three hours, or the whole day, you need to know.

Secondly, write down a list of all the potential projects you have to work on. At the top of that list, write the name of your current work in progress.

Thirdly, re-write the list in order of how much you want to write the project, and how much of a benefit it will be to you to write it.

Fourthly, put a line under the fourth or fifth project, if the list is long. Anything below the line isn’t necessary to write just yet.

Let’s look at my list, as I write this article:

  1. 25 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block (you’re currently reading No. 22)
  2. ParagraVerse poetry and prose
  3. Articles for my website
  4. My personal blog
  5. My novella, The Blood of Leap
  6. My longer book on writing
  7. My Science Fiction novel, which needs editing and submitting to a publisher
  8. My new fiction series
  9. A Fantasy novel I want to write

That’s just at the moment. There are other projects tucked away elsewhere in my files, but for now these are the nine I’m working on. While writing these articles, because it’s such a huge undertaking given the short period of time I’ve given myself to complete it, I didn’t touch number 5-9 until towards the end of the writing process. Even then, I only turned to the Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook and Writer’s Market in the search for suitable agents and publishers for my Science Fiction novel.

Yes, the list needed to be re-ordered when I’ve finished the book. I needed to establish what was most important of the larger projects to focus on. That’s important, though, to regularly evaluate the work you have to do. I know that before I would have just continued with those projects that remained. I would have continued writing the prose and poetry, and the personal blog, and the articles, but I could have only dipped in and out of each other project. That doesn’t help.

So, when you’ve established what you’re going to work on, you’ll work on number 1 on your list the most. However, it won’t be the only item you’ll work on. Choose smaller projects to help create a balance in your workload. I ensured I’d written my daily target of chapters for this book before I touched any of the other items in my top four. Knowing that I have something else to turn to, though, helped to maintain my work ethic. I didn’t become de-motivated, I didn’t struggle with Writer’s Block, and I didnt’ miss out on my personal deadlines as a result. I worked within the hours I had available, and since taking the approach outlined in this chapter, I’d been productive. This was between going to work, minding my niece and moving around rooms in the house.

Write something else, and continue your main project at the same time.

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Beating Writer’s Block: Brainstorm

Brainstorm

If you find yourself facing Writer’s Block, there’s one simple solution that always comes in handy: brainstorming. This exercise is a common practice among writers, though usually it’s done at the beginning of a project. We’re going to use it in this post to help get past the specific problem you’re facing.

You’ll need: a blank sheet of paper, preferably without lines; an easy to write with pen or pencil; a means to count down five minutes; and the time to sit without distraction for that same period of time. Got everything you need? Then let’s get started.

Action Time! In the middle of the page, write down what it is you’ll be brainstorming.

This might include: imagery for a poem; a scene in a novel, short story or script; a topic in a non-fiction book; or a crisis faced by a character or a group of characters. The list goes on, but in terms of the vaguest definitions of problems authors have with Writer’s Block, those are four of the biggest issues. I know from experience how difficult it can be trying to figure out a scene, especially if it began as a result of inspiration rather than out of a plan, or the trouble that might be faced when putting a character in an impossible situation.

When you have your word or phrase in the middle of the page, circle it. Your timer should begin now. Give yourself five minutes. From that central word or phrase, write down as many different ideas as you can, even if they don’t make a whole lot of sense. Include every thought that comes into your head when you look at the problem. Think of it as a word association game. If you need to throw in a character into a difficult scene, write that down. If you need to figure out a transition from one chapter to another, and one option is to include a whole new, unplanned chapter, write that down.

I try to write down 8-10 main points, and see how each might be expanded on in the remaining time. When the five minutes are up, look at your brainstorm more closely. Highlight the ideas that you might be able to use, and ignore the others. See if any of your ideas might work better together than they would in isolation. Take your time with this part of the exercise.

When you’ve finished, attempt to write the next part of your book. Remember the old caveat about first drafts: they are very rarely the finished piece. You can return to the scene later and fix it. That’s what revision is for. The most important thing with a first draft is to finish it.

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Beating Writer’s Block: Interview Yourself

Interview Yourself

One thing no author can escape during the publication process, if he really wants to get his name out there, is an interview. Securing an interview can sometimes be difficult. The easiest way to find one is to be the interviewer yourself. In this chapter, that’s exactly what you’re going to do.

The purpose of this exercise is to help you figure out more about yourself as a writer. Below, I’ll list a series of interview questions for you to use as a template. I advise also writing other questions yourself. If you’re looking for more on top of that, too, you can check out the questions in the post on interviewing your character, which are also relevant to you.

  1. Can you describe your book in three sentences or less?
  2. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
  3. If there was one author you would compare yourself to, who would that be?
  4. Do you have any particular writing rituals that you perform every day?
  5. Do you have a dream publisher? If so, who are they?
  6. What one piece of advice would you give to other writers?
  7. If you could only write in one genre for the next ten years, what would it be?
  8. What book do you recommend most to friends and family? What book do you recommend specifically for other writers?
  9. If you could interview any living person on any topic, who would they be, and what would you ask?
  10. Aside from writing, what other hobbies do you have? Can you write about it?
  11. What do you wish you knew before you started writing? (If you’re a published or self-publishing writer, what do you wish you knew before you published your first book?)
  12. How will you determine your own success as a writer?

Action Time! Read through each question, and answer them as fully and as honestly as you can.

Take your time. The more you can write, the greater your understanding of yourself as a writer will be. Remember to create your own questions, too. If you need help finding questions, look up other questions used in author interviews online.

This exercise should help you get to know yourself – as a writer – better. A greater idea of what you want from life, what you like to write about, what you know and wish you knew, and where you came from, will help you create a greater confidence in yourself. This confidence is key to beating Writer’s Block, as it will help you overcome any doubts you might have in yourself and in your book.

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